The House Makes Doing Nothing Look Hard

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If both the farm bill and an immigration measure actually reach the floor on Thursday, the House is going to look like a real legislative body, at least on the surface. Don’t be fooled. The Republican majority is just passing the buck as usual. Or, I should say: Speaker Paul Ryan is passing the buck, as he usually does. Which is why he’s been such a disappointment.

It doesn’t really matter whether the farm bill, which was defeated the first time the House voted on it a month ago, passes this time. What’s at stake is only which version of a partisan measure is going to be ignored by the Senate, which everyone believes will actually write the eventual renewal of authorization for agriculture programs, including anti-poverty spending that many conservatives oppose. Most likely, that will come after a temporary bill extends the deadline beyond Sept. 30 so that the issue can be dealt with during a lame-duck session after the midterm elections. It’s even possible that House Republicans will be so stuck on positions that have no chance of passing the Senate that they would rather postpone action into 2019 and the new Congress, even though the odds are that doing so would give Democrats additional clout. 

Then there’s immigration. Some House Republicans have been demanding a vote on the Goodlatte bill, which incorporates several anti-immigration measures supported by President Donald Trump and some members of his party. Others have pushed for a vote on a fix to protect the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and were given temporary protection by the Obama administration. Ryan is offering votes on both. But a version of the Goodlatte bill failed in the Senate, where it didn’t even come close to a simple majority, let alone the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster. And the other so-called compromise proposal — which was only a compromise within the House Republican conference — appears to be written in a way that won’t attract any Democratic votes and also won’t win support of anti-immigration Republicans. 

In other words, both measures are likely to fail. It appears that the entire point of the exercise would be to give everyone a chance to vote without anything passing. Since, unlike with the farm bill, there’s nothing must-pass here, and these votes may very well be the final ones on immigration during this Congress.

This wouldn’t be the first time that members of Congress appeared to be far more interested in what the political scientist David Mayhew called “position taking” than in actually legislating. What’s unusual in this session is that we might expect Republicans to be particularly interested in passing laws given that they have the rare opportunity of unified party government. That’s what Democrats tried to do when they enjoyed similar circumstances in 2009-2010. But, apart from the major tax cut they passed in the first session of this Congress, Republicans just don’t seem very interested in doing the hard work necessary to translate their policy preferences into the best possible (from their point of view) legislation. 

Instead, the hallmark of Ryan’s House has been to punt every tough decision over to the Senate, and then either swallow whatever the upper chamber does — as was the case with the tax bill and the budget agreement — or let the Senate be where bills died, as was the case with Obamacare repeal. 

Ryan didn’t want action on either immigration bills; it’s only happening because some Dreamer supporters were threatening to sign a discharge petition that would have brought several votes to the House floor. 

It’s not unusual for rank-and-file members of the House to be satisfied with position taking. But collectively, they do want to advance their party’s agenda, and the job of the leadership is to make the tough decisions to make that happen and to take the heat. But Ryan has repeatedly chosen the easy way out, even if it costs his party and his chamber influence over policy. Yes, the House Republican conference is dysfunctional and any speaker would have a tough time bringing together a conference that ranges from relatively moderate conservatives worried about losing in November to the rejectionists in the House Freedom Caucus. Ryan has rarely even tried.

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