John Boehner’s Coming Sharknado

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Immigration reform has exposed, once again, the teeming stew of chaos, paranoia, and dysfunction that is the House of Representatives. Yet immigration reform, divisive though it is, may be the least of the lower chamber’s problems. The Republican leadership has spent the summer in survival mode, tamping down various calamities, but in a way that makes their eventual outcome not better but much, much worse. In the fall, we’re going to see a horrific combination of disasters oddly presaged by last night’s cable premiere of Sharknado.

One element of the disaster — say, the shark part — is the farm bill. Because of a weird legislative quirk, Congress has to pass some kind of farm bill regularly. If it expires, we revert to a 1949 law — which, because things are very different now, would wreak all kinds of havoc. Congress would ideally pass a law ending farm subsidies, but it doesn’t want to do that.

House Republicans first tried to pass a farm bill by pairing it with punitive cuts to food stamps (that would, for instance, cut off people who lose their jobs and can’t find new ones). That was so punitive it alienated most of the rural Democrats who had planned to vote for it, but it still wasn’t punitive enough for a few dozen conservative Republicans, who just hate the idea of giving free stuff to poor people with a white-hot intensity. So House Republicans stripped out all the funding for food stamps and passed a bill renewing subsidies for agriculture.

It seemed like a victory for the House Republican leadership. But it’s not. Any eventual farm bill is going to have to include some funding for food stamps. As soon as you start adding in more funding, you start losing Republicans. Note that yesterday’s farm bill passed with four votes to spare. There is no evidence that House Republicans have figured out a way to pass a bill that can be signed onto law. Republican Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas says he will figure out food stamps “as soon as I can achieve a consensus,” i.e., never.

Boehner ally Tom Cole is already anticipating the conservative revolt that will occur when the Republican leadership inevitably has to compromise:

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a close Boehner ally, said that any bill negotiated with the Senate “is going to be a lot different than the one that passes today.”

If a negotiated bill comes up for a vote in the House, Cole said he hopes that “we don’t hear people who voted for this bill complaining that they somehow felt betrayed or were let down. That’s what worries me the most — the acrimony that could come.”

Meanwhile, the tornado is the debt ceiling. After the 2011 debacle, the White House realized it made a huge mistake by letting negotiations over the debt ceiling — which both parties agree must be raised to avoid fiscal calamity — become entangled with ideologically charged divisions over fiscal policy, and vowed never to negotiate over it again. From the Democrats' perspective, it worked. Republicans freed the hostage without getting anything in return.

January 1981: United States hostages departing an airplane on their return from Iran after being held for 444 days. One of the hostages is waving his fists in the air, and a sign on the plane door says, 'Welcome Back to Freedom'. Photo: Express/Getty Images

Now here is the tricky part. When the two sides negotiated the debt ceiling last spring, they made a deal that, from Obama’s perspective, did not involve substantive concessions, but from Republicans’ perspective did. The condition for raising the debt ceiling was that Senate Democrats would pass a new budget, not just a continuation of the previous budget, and use “regular order.” At the time, “regular order” was a big GOP talking point that was held up to prove that Republicans were more responsible than Democrats.

In fact, the whole thing was nonsense. Democrats were happy to pass a budget and didn’t think it was a concession. At the time, Republicans waved it around as a huge concession. Since then, they’ve decided they don’t want regular order at all and have refused to allow a conference to negotiate differences between the Republican and Democratic budgets. They’re insisting they’ll only negotiate a budget if they can use the debt ceiling as a threat to extract unilateral concessions. No normal negotiation, only hostage-taking.

Obama still holds his position that he won’t pay a ransom for Republicans to not blow up the world economy. But Republicans still don’t accept that. Since Republicans believed (or, at least, persuaded themselves to believe) that they won a huge concession last spring in return for lifting the debt ceiling, they think, or say, that they can get more concessions.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, when it got little attention, House Republicans drew up their list of debt-ceiling ransom demands, and they are positively insane. They’ve come up with this sliding scale of demands. If Obama wants a four-year increase in the debt ceiling, all he has to do is … agree to Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Social Security. Republicans are generously willing to let Obama accept smaller concessions, like cutting Social Security benefits, in return for shorter-term increases in the debt ceiling, but then of course he’d have to come back to the House Republicans to be jacked up again next year.

Not even the most hostile reading of Obama’s negotiating skills would make this a plausible basis for negotiations. Obama would never sign on to anything remotely like this. The House plan is like listening to a bunch of teenage boys talking about which supermodels they would and would not be willing to sleep with.

Immigration reform is the final element here — if we want to keep this metaphor going, we’ll have to imagine the sharks in the tornado also have laser beams.

House Republicans are saying they’ll handle immigration reform only after they go through the debt-ceiling hostage crisis. And this will only make the other crazy stuff even crazier. The immigration-reform drama is stoking the (probably correct) fear among conservatives that the leadership is secretly maneuvering to force them to have to accept a comprehensive reform bill. The conservative goal on immigration reform, as Andrew Stiles reports, is to avoid any situation where the House is negotiating with the Senate.

It is in that atmosphere of toxic distrust of the leadership by the conservative base that the House is somehow going to have to pass both a farm bill and a debt-ceiling hike that is totally unacceptable to the right. And since Boehner wants to pass immigration reform, he’s really not going to want to enrage his easily enraged base by passing bills with Democratic votes.

Indeed, the desire to pass immigration reform is forcing the party Establishment to get even crazier on everything else, to display its conservative bona fides. Marco Rubio is insisting House Republicans should take an even harder line on the debt ceiling. He also says they should shut down the government and refuse to reopen it unless Obama agrees to completely defund the Affordable Care Act. (Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention this — they’re also going to have to have another vote to continue running the government or else go through a shutdown.)

Boehner’s problem is that he has done nothing at all to persuade his craziest members that there are limits on their power that prevent them from forcing Obama to accept their agenda without any concessions. Rather, those members have simply grown increasingly angry over Boehner’s perceived disloyalty and weakness. As the Bible says, more or less, Boehner has sown the wind, and he will reap the whirlwind — a whirlwind of sharks.