Republicans in Congress are like a Christmas present; you never know what you get until you open the box.
In the case of the farm bill considered yesterday in the House, it should have been an easy political gift. While it hardly qualified as a conservative piece of legislation, there were some very nice elements in it, including toughening work requirements for able-bodied Americans who want food stamps.
But that issue was secondary to the blow-up that occurred between conservative members of the Freedom Caucus and the House GOP leadership. Conservatives were sick of the leadership’s promises that a get-tough immigration bill written by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodblatte would be brought to the floor for a vote. They were unsatisfied with Speaker Ryan’s pledges to give them what they want, so they refused to vote for the farm bill, sending it down to defeat.
Both sides will bicker over whether this is a self-inflicted wound or another three-dimensional chess move. The real question is about actual sides, a question Ryan might’ve pondered as the Farm Bill burned.
“We basically run a coalition government without the efficiency of a parliamentary system,” Ryan told Politico’s Tim Alberta last December. It is difficult to disagree with that now.
While Democrats march with rank-and-file unity on the House floor, it’s not even clear how many banners there are inside the Republican party. The three big ones include the moderate Tuesday Group, the inversely conservative Freedom Caucus, and members still loyal to leadership. A better political scientist could go deeper and diagnose further, but the main point is division.
This division deadlocked Congress first on Obamacare repeal and now on the Farm Bill, led to the scalping of former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and caused Ryan to get out while he could.
This doesn’t mean that what was running through Ryan’s head wasn’t pleasant. Watching his party turn on him again, he might have comforted himself with thoughts of retirement. Ryan will return home to Wisconsin in a couple months and leave behind this inefficient parliament.
When does a political party stop being a political party? That question should occupy Republicans if they become mired in the minority. Democrats are far more monochromatic in their ideological beliefs and will become more so as the radicals continue to drag the party ever leftward. The Democratic leadership may be reluctant to drift into socialism, but they have apparently bowed to the inevitable as their rabid base nominates ever more extreme candidates.
But Republicans are separated not only by varying degrees of conservative ideology, but also an institutional bias by the far right against the less far right. There is a lack of trust within the caucus that showed itself in the farm bill vote yesterday and will continue to divide the party until the non-establishment replaces the current establishment to become…the new establishment.
Someone’s got to lead. The question then becomes can any one faction, any one personality take the reins of the party and forge a new consensus?
I wouldn’t bet on it happening any time soon.