After all the talk about how Congress can’t do anything, Congress actually did something today: The House passed a Farm Bill. A real one (Brad Plumer describes the main provisions here), that comes out of an actual functioning conference committee, and will become law after the Senate votes for it and the president signs it. Just the way Congress is supposed to work!
Well, sort of. The bill is two years overdue, and had to go through a lot of convoluted hoops in order to get through the Tea-Party-dominated House. The original House effort last year failed because it was too draconian for Democrats and not draconian enough for some Republicans, who successfully demanded breaking the bill into two separate bills, with one containing steep cuts in food stamps.
In the end, however, the winning logic of combining nutrition support with agriculture programs into an unbeatable bipartisan combination prevailed. The final bill received very solid support from Republicans (who backed it 163-62), while only losing narrowly among Democrats (89-103). The bill lost liberals because it still contained $8 billion in food stamp cuts over 10 years, but the final bill is far closer to the version passed in the Senate. In other words, Tea Partyers were able to get their way for a while in the House, but ultimately the key votes belong to mainstream conservatives, and they wanted this one to pass.
Which is pretty much the lesson for other bills. If mainstream Senate Democrats (and the White House) and mainstream House Republicans want something to pass, it will happen. But that usually requires those mainstream Republicans to expose the distance between themselves and the radical Republicans. That works for the radicals, who desperately want to differentiate themselves from their more mainstream colleagues in order to show that they are “real” conservatives.
This formula also explains why the radicals are so worried about the prospect of a conference committee with the Senate on immigration. Once a bill gets to conference, the participants are generally looking to produce a final bill -- that’s the whole point of a conference committee! That means ignoring the few dozen radical Republicans who are certain “no” votes on anything that could get President Barack Obama’s signature.
On the other hand, it also shows why immigration (and an unemployment benefits extension and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other popular bills pushed by the Democrats) face such challenges. On the Farm Bill, Republicans had very powerful constituencies -- farmers, agribiz and rural communities in general -- who wanted a bill. Specific benefits to Republican districts would have disappeared had they allowed the radicals to sink the bill.
That's not the case on most other bills. The party’s image may suffer if it blocks popular items, but specific damage to specific Republican members is hard to see. That doesn’t mean those bills are necessarily dead; party actors care about the party’s image, and politicians care what party actors think. (That's how the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization passed.) It just makes it a more complicated calculation. The farm bill proved unbeatable. For better or worse, there’s at least one functioning compromise left over from a less polarized time.
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