House of Representatives: Still terrible at everything

House GOP's use of cheap tricks and a backup plan called "blaming Democrats" fails to avert farm bill humiliation

Published June 21, 2013 4:14PM (EDT)

House Speaker John Boehner              (Reuters/Jason Reed)
House Speaker John Boehner (Reuters/Jason Reed)

Somehow or other, the U.S. government, for the first time in years, is close-ish to being functional. Don't read too heavily into that word "functional." The government is not and will not probably be moving on your pet issue any time soon, sorry. But the Senate is actually moving, on bipartisan pieces of legislation that are in the public spotlight: a farm bill, a comprehensive immigration bill. GOP senators who typically pretend to negotiate compromises and then run for the hills once they near a motion to proceed, like Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker, are suddenly seeing out those compromises. One of the two houses of Congress, in our lifetime, may well be nearing the minimum threshold for competence.

Now then, what's the problem? Oh right, it's the House of Representatives, which is terrible at everything, and offers no indication of being any other way until at least 2023. Let's give some credit: They're adept at passing go-nowhere bills to repeal Obamacare or ban abortion or tattoo the words "Under God" to every baby's forehead. Great work there from the House Republican Party. On issues that might appeal to an even slightly broader cross-section of the country, though, they've got nothing. You know this. You've seen the same routine in nearly every important vote since 2009. Remember that time the government considered arbitrarily defaulting on the public debt and destroying the global economy forever? That was a head-scratcher for the House; took some real "working out" before they concluded it would best be averted, for now.

It always works out the same way, at the 11th hour. A Senate-originated compromise, after much pouting, is taken up by the House after several defeats of their own insane legislation. Maybe a tweak or two is offered. The House passes it. Conservatives serve up uncreative epithets for John Boehner for exercising the only decent option available to him. The next big piece of legislation comes up. And, at least as of yesterday's farm bill flop, they begin this same fatal cycle of time wasting again.

The House leadership seemed to think, this time around, at least, that a combination of cheap tricks and a backup plan called "blaming Democrats" would change this deeply entrenched dynamic of incompetence that surrounds everything it tries to do.

The House didn't even get to a vote on the farm bill last year, knowing it didn't have enough votes. What could the leadership do differently this time to make sure that a bill hated by most Democrats and still too many Republicans, facing a certain Senate death and then if necessary a White House veto, could pass for no productive reason?

It could ... put Iowa Rep. Steve King in charge of whipping? Yes. Yes! This would change the dynamic altogether. If a nutbird like Steve King was the one pushing for this bill then surely all conservatives would fall in line.

There's little we enjoy more than watching a useless no-voting screecher in Congress suddenly realize he needs his goddamn corn money and then desperately try to persuade his comrades for their votes. And then when it fails, he is just so disappointed in their ability to see the bigger picture. Come on, guys, it's about the long game here:

GOP leaders blamed Democrats and insisted their whip counts were accurate, even as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who helped whip support for the bill, said he was surprised at the 62 GOP defections.

“I was surprised by about half of them,” he said. “I thought they would have taken more of a 10,000-foot view.”

Yes, show a little maturity for once, Steve King said, to other people.

Then the Republican leadership blames Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for only bringing 24 Democratic "aye" votes to the table. Jesus. We're not sure that Nancy Pelosi got 24 votes from the Republican Party on all major bills combined in the years 2009 and 2010. Also, there's a reason that most Democrats didn't vote for this farm bill, and that's because they hate it, because it assaults the social safety net. But yeah, anyway, sure, this is Nancy Pelosi's fault, boo, she's evil and wears a lot of makeup, boo.

There's only one way to a bill becoming a law in this government setup, which we're stuck with for a while: The House has to work within the framework of a Senate-drafted compromise, and lean on Democratic votes. This is the only way things work right now, and no special guest whip or hollering at the mean San Francisco lady will change that.

And of course yesterday's farm bill failure has implications on comprehensive immigration reform, which will most likely soon pass through the Senate. It's hard to come to any other conclusion than Brian Beutler's:

But more broadly, it’s tough to look at the farm bill fiasco and imagine the House passing an immigration reform bill that Dems don’t carry.

If that’s the case, then the key to the whole immigration reform effort really is John Boehner accepting the internal consequences of just putting something similar to the gang of eight bill on the floor and getting out of the way.

You can watch the farm bill fail and reason that Boehner might think immigration reform isn’t worth it. Or you can watch the farm bill fail and reason that he might decide to dispense with all the member management theatrics and throw in with Democrats and GOP donors. But you can’t watch the farm bill fail and see the House GOP passing a Hastert-rule compliant immigration reform bill and going into conference with the Senate.

We'd say Boehner will go with option 2, bringing immigration to the floor and leaning on Democrats. There's no mysterious character quirk specific to Boehner that always leads him to this conclusion, as conservatives seem to believe. His decisions follow a fairly simple weighing of the pros and cons, and anyone in his position would make the same ones. That's why he still has his job: because there's no other way to do it, and those who would hope to become speaker can see that.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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