From the ICYMI file: on Thursday, the House failed to pass a Farm Bill. Why is this significant? Because ordinarily, the Farm Bill passes both chambers easily. For instance, the Senate passed it’s version of the Farm Bill by a 66-27 vote. The last Farm Bill, in 2008, passed 316-117.
So why could this version of what is normally as uncontroversial a piece of legislation as possible garner only 195 “ayes” – and only 24 votes from Democrats? To hear the Democrat House leadership, it was a failure of the Republican leadership to round up their caucus, pointing to the 62 Republicans who voted against the bill. The Republican leadership casts the vote as pure partisan politics by the Democrats, who had promised 40-60 votes for passage and then reneged. According to the political press, the bill failed because it was too draconian in the way it slashed subsidies for everything from direct payments to farmers to the food stamp program.
All of them are wrong.
The problem with all of this prattling is that nobody is paying attention to a new dynamic that is appearing in the legislative process. The legislative institutions are creatures of habit. The rules they play by are built on decades of two-party primacy in American politics. As such, they’ve become a sort of hodge-podge of American Constitutionalism and parliamentary rulings, with very clear delineations of authority. There are majority and minority party leaders, deputies and whips. These party leaders are expected to round up the overwhelming of their party members into voting blocs. In a strict two-party system, these rules have worked well. Both parties have made use of the “Hastert Rule,” even before it was declared by former Speaker Dennis Hastert. (For the politically uninitiated, that particular rule says no bill can come to the floor unless it has support from more than half of the majority party). Likewise, both parties have made use of patronage and privilege to obtain votes and threats of retaliation to punish wayward caucus members.
But the system breaks down and becomes ineffective when there are three or more parties involved in legislating. While there may be only two official parties recognized in Congress, there is a stark reality that isn’t being faced by any of the DC proletariat: when they weren’t looking, a de facto third party stormed the gates. This party is not beholden to established party dictums or the existing rules. In fact, most of these members consider it their sworn duty to upend the apple cart. While most carry the “Republican” label, they are really much more broad than that narrow definition. Moreover, their power may be felt primarily in the House right now, but there are a small number in the Senate who are making life difficult for their caucus leaders.
I’m speaking, of course, about the Tea Party.
It is a loose coalition of libertarians and social conservatives, who ordinarily could not agree on the time of day. But in the current political climate, they do agree on one important point: the federal government is too big, too bloated and too intrusive. They see the issue not as one in which government practices must be reformed, but completely eviscerated. The reason they voted against the Farm Bill was not that it didn’t cut enough (as opined virtually everywhere), but that it spent $940 billion over 5 years – a figure that wasn’t offset anywhere else. For them, it represented further government growth, which is the ultimate sin. Their nays were virtually assured.
So what is the Republican leadership to do? In the Senate, the establishment Republicans are being faced with fierce resistance by the likes of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. These members have already employed their own version of the nuclear option to gum up the works on legislation. In the house, Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are faced with a large bloc (perhaps as much as 35% of their caucus) who simply cannot be cajoled or threatened into following them.
The answer is, the Republican establishment needs to understand that the “party line” no longer exists as they know it. If they really want to survive as a viable party, then they need to reclaim their party – and realize they cannot reclaim the Tea Party caucus. The two groups, currently defined as factions within the media, are in fact two separate parties, pursuing disparate goals.
Legislatively, the “loony birds” (as described establishment figure John McCain) are successful strictly because they can sow havoc within the Republican caucus. While they may not have the power to pursue their own legislative agenda, they do have enough clout to prevent bills they dislike from becoming law. It is the root of the “do-nothing” Congress.
Of course, expelling the Tea Party members from the Republican caucus would present two problems for the establishment part of the party. First, in a practical sense, it would mean losing their majority status in the House and being further diminished in the Senate. Second, while the establishment still represents the majority of the Republican brand, there is little doubt that the real energy in the party is coming from the Tea Party faction – and real fear among Republican leaders that crossing swords with Tea Party candidates would lead to decimating losses for establishment types.
For the Tea Party itself, such an expulsion would have immediate consequences, in that there isn’t a national Tea Party infrastructure. This would mean to survive, it would need to build one immediately. Fundraising (always critical in political campaigns), identifying candidates, getting on state ballots – all of these operations would need to get up-and-running within months, if not weeks. Undoubtedly, groups like FreedomWorks and Heritage would be willing to jump in on their behalf. And a skeletal effort could be gleaned from former Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign organizations. It’s even likely the libertarian Koch brothers, much reviled by the political left, would be willing to switch allegiances.
In the short-term, however, the Republican party is facing a question over how to proceed. It seems likely that the compromises hammered out in the Senate stand virtually no chance of passing the House without significant buy-in from Democrats. On budget matters, the Republican Establishment is still more closely aligned with their Tea Party members than with liberal Democrats – meaning repeats of the Farm Bill fiasco are more likely unless the leadership crafts legislation that reduces overall spending. Think about it: the sequester, reviled publicly by liberals and privately by establishment conservatives, was never supposed to happen. The political calculus was nobody would want to see across the board spending cuts. But none of the main players counted on a strong Tea Party bloc that wanted exactly that outcome. And sequester-type bills are the only thing Tea Party members will approve on appropriations.
So, what happens now? Expelling the Tea Party from the Republican caucus would smooth the passage of legislation that bloc finds offensive. But it would cost the establishment Republicans their power and potentially their seats in 2014 or 2016, an unfathomable idea to the Washington mindset. Moving further to the right on budgetary matters would allow them to preserve their majority, but would likely lead to a legislative stalemate with the Senate. That’s also considered a political loser for the establishment. My bet is on the latter, though, if for no other reason that it leaves battle lines as drawn between Republicans and Democrats. It is a version of kabuki theater with which both parties are familiar.
But looming in the background will be the Tea Party. At the moment, it is much more prominent on the national stage than in local and state government. But if more Tea Party type candidates find themselves in elective office on those levels and the establishment Republicans are perceived to only pay lip-service to Tea Party ideals, then watch out. There may be a sudden explosion of legislators and governors, mayors and council members, displaying a T after their name to show party affiliation.