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Even Before the Shutdown, House Republicans Couldn't Get Anything Done

The do-nothing caucus' greatest misses, from immigration reform to the farm bill

John Boehner
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
October 8, 2013 10:00 AM ET

For House Republicans, shutting down government has one distinct upside: It obscures how hapless the party has become at the basic work of governing the country.

In the months before they turned out the lights in Washington, House Republicans were in disarray. Hardliners were threatening Speaker John Boehner's job over immigration reform. Moderate Republicans were balking the spending cuts that would actually be required to implement Paul Ryan's budget. Trying to get something – anything – accomplished, GOP leaders went on a fishing expedition for Democratic votes on the Farm Bill. And when that effort collapsed, even the fallback position – intended to unite conservatives – ended up sparking a feud between House extremists and even extreme outside groups like the Heritage Foundation.

Here, a recap of the chaos that reigned in the House of Boehner:

Immigration Reform

In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a "path to citizenship" for undocumented workers. It is clear that, were it put to a vote in the House, the reform would pass – with a majority of Democratic votes and a small bloc of Republicans.

These days, House conservatives fetishise the "Hastert Rule" – which is not actually a rule but an often-respected convention that only bills supported by a majority of the Republican conference receive a vote on the floor. Throughout this Congress, however, Boehner has used big, bipartisan votes in the Senate as a get-out-of-Hastert-free-card. Over the objection of a strong majority of GOP members, Boehner steered passage of the Senate's Fiscal Cliff compromise, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and $50 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief.

Anti-immigration hardliners in the House are determined that the Senate immigration bill, adopted on a vote of 68-to-38 in the upper chamber, not join this list. And they have threatened to topple Boehner if it does. This summer, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) gathered more than 50 signatures to call a "special conference" on immigration. It was a show of force. The same conference procedure is all that's required to force a new leadership election in the middle of a congress. Boehner got the message: The Speaker soon declared that under no circumstances would an immigration bill opposed by a majority of House Republicans reach the floor.

If King's parliamentary threat was subtle, Dana Rohrabacher's anything but. In June, the California Republican said that if Boehner broke the Hastert Rule on immigration "he should be removed as Speaker" for his "betrayal of the Republicans throughout the country." Rep. Tim Salmon (R-Arizona) echoed that threat – and expanded it to the rest of the leadership team. "There's a great unrest," he said. "We've already had several pieces of legislation that have gone out of this place with majority Democrats and minority Republicans. There gets to be a proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. A lot of members in the conference," he said, "would be frustrated to the point of seeking new leaders."

Transportation Funding

The Paul Ryan budget has long been criticized as a fantasy document. Former Reagan budget director David Stockman, for one, slammed it in an interview with Rolling Stone for proposing "absurd rollbacks in discretionary spending" that House members "would never vote for, on a program-by-program basis."

The fate of the Transportation Housing and Urban Development spending bill known as THUD proved Stockman's point. Working to bring the austere spending caps required by Ryan's budget to reality, the GOP bill slashed transportation funding by $4 billion. The proposal cut development block grants to cities nearly in half, and cut funding to highways, bridges and tunnels by some 15 percent.

THUD's reception in the conference in July was onomatopoetic. For the House GOP's small bloc of moderate and urban members, the cuts were simply too great to swallow. Facing a "bleak" vote count, leadership was forced to pull the bill.

House Appropriations chair Hal Rogers – an inveterate cigar puffer who runs one of the last smoke-filled back rooms in Washington – slammed his own conference. "With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted three months ago," he said, adding: "A good number of members who had supported the Ryan budget ideals, when it came time to implement it with specific cuts, were unwilling to support it. They abandoned ship."

The Farm Bill

The Farm Bill has long been a bastion of bipartisanship in the House. The same legislation funds subsidies for agribusiness as well as the nation's food stamp program – uniting a strong rural/urban coalition from both parties.

In July, Republican leaders looked to Democrats for help passing a bipartisan bill, and believed they'd rounded up 40 votes – despite nearly $20 billion in cuts to food stamps that would have kicked nearly 2 million Americans out of the program.

The move angered House hardliners who were demanding nearly $40 billion be slashed from nutrition funding. And, in a bit of mischief, extremists who had no intention of supporting the final bill, began voting to lard it up with a slew of amendments – including provisions that would allow states to drug test recipients of food aid and that would require able-bodied food stamp recipients to work – despite an economy that's not producing jobs.

The measures grew more and more extreme, and finally Democrats bolted en masse – leading to an embarrassing losing vote, 195-to-234, on the House floor. Nancy Pelosi called it "amateur hour."

Regrouping, House Republicans resolved to pass a farm-only bill. Splitting the farm funding from food stamps had long been a goal of outside groups like the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation. And House conservatives appeared confident that their vote would leave them in the good graces of the group's much-feared elections scorecard.

But the reason that Heritage advocated the split was to break what Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham calls "the unholy alliance between Republicans from square states and urban Democrats" who vote for the joint bill, which Heritage considers a "bad pile of policy."

Instead of applying their avowed small-government principles to their new, agriculture-only farm bill, House Republicans actually made it worse. In the failed bipartisan bill, lawmakers were going to create a new price floor for farmers – meaning that if crop prices fall from their historically high prices, taxpayers would be on the hook to make up the difference. In the bipartisan bill, this provision would last only five years. In the Republicans-only bill, it never expired. "It was the same bad farm bill we'd just been against," says Needham, "but worse because it is permanent law. And we were still opposed to it."

This was not the message that House hardliners wanted to hear. "We went into battle thinking they were on our side," South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney fumed to reporters, "and we find out they're shooting at us."

Outraged that hardliners were being called to account on their own wasteful Washington spending, the chairman of the caucus of the most conservative members in the House, the Republican Study Committee, barred Heritage from the group's weekly meetings – which Heritage had attended since the early 1970s.

"Some members," says Needham, "were very, very upset at us over our opposition to farm pork."

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