“I Told You We’d Kill It”

This week’s failures in Congress revealed the GOP’s problem with governing.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) pauses during remarks to reporters in a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 27, 2013.

Time is on his side.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Early on Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the start of a monthlong summer recess, the U.S. Senate held a doomed vote on a $44 billion package of transportation and housing funds. The vote was 54-43, six short of cloture, most Republicans making sure that the bill with the accidentally perfect name of THUD (Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development) went down in flames for now.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, whose work on a gun control amendment this year gave him the temporary glow of a centrist, walked from the Senate to a special, open live-streamed meeting of the Republican Study Committee, all about the Obama administration’s scandals. Anyone watching the Tea Party Patriots-sponsored feed could hear Toomey tell a colleague that “we did something constructive today” in the Senate.

“We denied cloture on the THUD bill,” said Toomey. “I told you we’d kill it, and we did.”

This was only a day after the House of Representatives had pulled its version of THUD from the floor. All week congressmen had been slogging through amendments, on schedule, but late on Wednesday they punted, promising to take up the bill after the recess. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers thought otherwise. “The prospects for passing this bill in September are bleak at best,” he said in a statement, “given the vote count on passage that was apparent this afternoon.”

That put House Speaker John Boehner in the awkward but survivable position of facing reporters on Thursday and telling them that Rogers was wrong. “I believe the votes would have been there for the THUD bill, but we had some 50 amendments to work through,” said Boehner. At the moment they pulled the bill, they’d already dealt with 22 amendments. It was just too much, said the speaker, “considering everything else we had this week.”

Gazing in horror at the Republican House and pronouncing it “dysfunctional” is a favorite Washington hobby this year, and Republicans know it. They’ve played into it. Boehner often insists that the party controls “one-half of one-third of the government,” as if that renders it helpless, and as if the Supreme Court doesn’t lean right. In a July 21 interview, Boehner sidestepped a question about how little was getting to the president’s desk by insisting Congress “ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”

That was a smarter line than pundits gave him credit for. Boehner was translating a core tenet that most Republicans believe—that “government is best which governs least.” (Many think Thomas Jefferson said this, when actually Henry David Thoreau did, but the point is that they believe it.) The real problem with the line was that Boehner hasn’t really succeeded at repealing laws, either. Right now the House is incredibly good at passing “message” bills and amendments, and pretty terrible at passing spending bills that could get to conference with the Senate.

Why? Three reasons. First, most House Republicans, and plenty of Senate Republicans, fundamentally mistrust the Democrats and think they’d use the conference to ram through spending bills (or immigration reform, or anything, really) they don’t like. The House GOP’s big idea on the debt ceiling this year was to force the Senate to pass a budget. It did. The House didn’t take the rebound. “We were so proud,” moaned Sen. John McCain in an interview this week. “We passed a budget resolution—most of it nonsense—but guess what? Now we have the same group [who demanded this] who are blocking going to conference. The same group sometimes doesn’t want to take up a bill and at other times blocks a bill because they can’t get all the amendments they want.”

The second reason is that House Republicans are stuck in a vise between Democrats who want to beat them in 2014 and conservatives who want to … well, in some cases, beat them in 2014. When the first version of the farm bill failed, it was for the same reason THUD was pulled. Democrats provided no cover (they neither whipped for or against, though some members organized the conference for the “no” side), and there weren’t enough “ayes” from the conservative wing. As Brian Beutler pointed out yesterday, House Republicans have only really agreed on the numbers in Paul Ryan’s budgets, which (if you remember the 2012 campaign) don’t get into specifics about cuts. They don’t “say how to allocate the dollars, nor does it grapple in any way with the possibility that cutting domestic spending so profoundly might be unworkable.” When spending bills come up, they’re going to contain details, and the details are going to lose people.

The third reason has much more to do with optimism. House Republicans face a map designed by state legislators to re-elect them for years. They know the Senate can flip in 2014 if Republicans win three open seats in red states (South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia) and knock out three Democratic incumbents. So they can easily imagine a future in which they don’t have to negotiate as much with Democrats, and when they can fill in the abstractions of the Ryan budget. The “one more election will fix this” theory dominated in 2012, and to a lesser extent in 2010—the believers are like blackjack players who hit on 20.

What do they pass in the meantime? Well, today, they were supposed to be celebrating the successful conclusion of Stop Government Abuse Week, with new bills (doomed in the Senate) to punish venal IRS employees, prevent the enactment of Obamacare, and so on. “We have a package of about 10 bills aimed directly at that very point,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Fox News last Friday. “The reason why we’re really doing it is because you’ve seen now across the country a lot of waning, if you will, of the trust that people have in this government.”

The result was the one development more ironic than “THUD.” In order to fast-track the bills and protect them from deleterious Democratic amendments, Republicans needed more than 80 Democrats to join them for two-thirds supermajorities. Democrats in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee whipped against it, so Republicans changed the rule on bills that weren’t actually generating many headlines anyway.

They’ll keep trying. Instructions for House Republicans heading home tell them to convene town halls or hold events that raise awareness of the IRS story. At his Thursday press conference, before he told reporters he was “not the least bit concerned” about the perception of a fumbling House, Boehner told reporters that he’d just met with House investigators digging into the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi.

“I stressed once again we need to get to the bottom of what happened that terrible night,” said Boehner. “We’re also continuing to investigate the IRS for its abuse of power. There’s nothing phony about these scandals, Mr. President.”