Boehner's House Implodes

The Farm Bill Fiasco

The roof fell in on John Boehner’s House of Representatives last week. The Republican leadership’s humiliating defeat on a deeply flawed and inhumane farm bill was as clear a lesson as we’ll get about the real causes of dysfunction in the nation’s capital.

Our ability to govern ourselves is being brought low by a witches’ brew of right-wing ideology, a shockingly cruel attitude toward the poor on the part of the Republican majority, and the speaker’s incoherence when it comes to his need for Democratic votes to pass bills.

Boehner is unwilling to put together broad bipartisan coalitions to pass middle-ground legislation except when he is pressed to the wall. Yet he and his lieutenants tried to blame last Thursday’s farm legislation fiasco -- the product of a massive repudiation by GOP conservatives of their high command -- on the Democrats’ failure to hand over enough votes.

He seemed to think he could freely pander to the desire of right-wing members of his caucus to throw millions of low-income Americans off the food stamp program. When that didn’t produce enough votes, he then expected Democrats to support a measure that most of them rightly regarded as immoral. In the end, the bill went down, two hundred thirty-four to one hundred ninety-five, with sixty-two Republicans voting no and twenty-four Democrats voting yes -- more help, by the way, than Nancy Pelosi usually got from Republicans when she was speaker.

Boehner can’t have it both ways, and he should be called out if he lets his party’s disarray throw the nation into an entirely unnecessary debt-ceiling crisis this fall. The nation shouldn’t be held hostage because of Republican chaos.

Start with the food stamp cuts, and let’s remember that this program is a monument to bipartisanship. The current form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is, in large part, the product of an unlikely alliance between former Sens. Bob Dole and George McGovern in the 1970s. They were far apart ideologically, but both were horrified that too many Americans were going without nourishment. Food stamps have been an enormous success in curbing hunger in our rich nation, while also serving as a powerful stimulus to economic recovery during hard times.

The bill the House voted down would have cut food stamps by $20.5 billion, eliminating food assistance to nearly two million low-income people, most of them working families with children or senior citizens.

This alone should have been bad enough to sink the bill. But then Republicans pushed through an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., to toughen work requirements in the program. Work requirements sound reasonable until you look at what Southerland’s amendment was actually designed to do.

As Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained, Southerland’s proposal violated “the most basic standards of human decency” because it made no effort, as other work requirements have in the past, to create employment openings for those who “want to work and would accept any job or work slot they could get, but cannot find jobs in a weak economy.”

In fact, noted Greenstein, a longtime advocate of nutrition assistance, the amendment barred states “from spending more on SNAP employment and training than they do now.” And it created incentives for states to throw people off food stamps by letting their governments keep half the SNAP savings to use for anything they wished (including, for example, tax cuts for the wealthy).

In a more rational political world, progressives and small-government conservatives might join forces to slash subsidies for agribusiness and wealthy farmers while containing market distortions bred by price supports. But when Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., proposed an amendment to restore some of the food stamp funding by reducing spending on crop insurance, it was defeated.

And Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., exposed hypocrisy on the matter of government handouts by excoriating Republican House members who had benefited from farm subsidies but voted to cut food stamps.

The collapse of the farm bill will generally be played as a political story about Boehner’s failure to rally his own right wing. That’s true as far as it goes and should remind everyone of the current House leadership’s inability to govern. But this is above all a story about morality: There is something profoundly wrong when a legislative majority is so eager to risk leaving so many Americans hungry. That’s what the bill would have done, and why defeating it was a moral imperative.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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I've been saying for some time that Boehner is perhaps the weakest Speaker in the history of the institution.  Certainly the weakest in modern times, and that includes Denny Hasteret.  At least Hastert had no illusions that he had any authority.  Boehner not only doesn't control his caucus, or even come close, he doesn't even control his leadership team.  Guys like Cantor ignore or even humiliate him and he does nothing. This, more than anything else contributes to the mess on Capitol Hill.  You cannot have a functioning legislative body without a leader who can deliver his troops.  It means that nobody can make a deal on anything, because even if Boehner agrees, he can't deliver.  We've seen it in the past on debt ceiling and the "grand bargain."  We saw  it on the Farm bill.  We'll see it again on issues like immigration reform.  And the frustrating thing is that I think Boehner really wants to do the right thing.  He's just incapable of doing it.  The real question is whether his weakness has weakened the position, and thus the institution permanently or whether a new speaker can breathe some life back into it. 

Hastert created the conditions for his own weakness and for the weakness of Boehner, by embracing the "Majority of the Majority" principle. 

I blame Newt Gingrich, more than any other single politician, for the current political morass. Gingrich also followed the "M of the M" policy, while introducing a new level of vitriol into the House of Representatives.  Gingrich brought the language of Rush Limbaugh into the House, encouraging House members to use derisive terms such a "pathetic" to describe the positions of the opposition Democrats, while utterly banishing the concept of the honest disagreement.

It's worse under Boehner simply because the GOP caucus has become dominated by unyielding hyper-conservatives and by those lesser ideologues terrrified of challengers in future primary elections.

The whole situation is sad to the point of being depressing. Solid majorities of voters wish for bipartisan coalitions, based on compromise for the good of the nation.  I don't ever recall a time where these principles of compromise have been so utterly rejected by politicians who value their own political careers over the well being of the nation they serve.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

Larry, I don't disagree with anything you wrote.  Sadly, the current understanding among the Congressional Republicans is that "compromise" means that their opponents give up their positions and accept the GOP ones.  Historically it meant both sides give on some points.

Anybody ask where were the 40 democratic votes that Pelosi promised?

Oops!  I'm confused.  Did E.Patrick intend to show how easily one can make Jim's and Larry's point?

That's sol


Neither the House nor the Senate are capable of functioning to solve our nation's problems.  Both chambers are deliberately organized to fail.  In the Senate, for the last several years, nothing can happen unless 60 people agree, an amazing high bar to achieve.  In the House, if the majority of the governing party does not agree, then the item normally cannot come up for a vote.  I wonder how many people really know this is what is going on.  The House and Senate, as currently managed, are monumental wastes of money.  They might as well go home, stop pretending to govern, and save us the money of maintaining them, their staffs, their travel, and other associated expenses. What is really sad is that we have been through similar times before.  I live in the South, where hatred regarding the failed war is so intense and so delusional, that it is becoming very common once more to refer to the event as the War of Northern Aggression, as if there were no reason whatsoever for its occurrence.  The bitterness in our nation is frightening.  It appears as if winning, without conceding any points whatsoever, is all that matters, and everything else be....


No, the intent was to show the democrats refused to compromise after Pelosi promised the votes just as the democrats refused to compromise

with the Republicans on Obamacare.








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