The strong bipartisan House vote on Wednesday for the farm bill was the third major defeat for conservative lobbying groups since the government shutdown, a sign that they’re losing their stranglehold on the House Republican majority.
The trio of defeats: The October bill to re-open the shuttered government and avert a catastrophic debt default (with no strings attached), the December budget agreement to raise spending and mitigate automatic sequester cuts and now the farm bill to renew agriculture subsidies and food stamps.
Tea party groups such as the Club For Growth and Heritage Action fought these initiatives every step of the way and threatened to use their scorecards to downgrade lawmakers who voted for them. In October, they lost the battle when Speaker John Boehner put a clean bill on the floor to fund the government and avert default (although most Republicans voted against it). But the budget and farm bill agreements each passed with the support of 70 percent of House Republicans, a more troubling sign for the tea party groups.
In the case of the farm bill, the groups wanted much deeper cuts to food stamps than bipartisan negotiators settled on. Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action, lamented on Wednesday that their effort was thwarted by an “unholy alliance” to combine farm policy and food stamps and maintain the status quo.
So, how did things go wrong for them?
Politically, they appear to have overplayed their hand. Republicans are acquiescing to the need to sustain the most basic functions of government, instead of routinely sparking crises that are painful for members and self-defeating for the party. The reality of a second term for President Barack Obama is slowly setting in. In addition, the dozens of freshman and sophomore members are starting to realize that they can buck the outside groups without necessarily suffering a fatal setback in their next Republican primary.
A breaking point came in December when the normally mild-mannered Boehner lashed out at the tea party groups publicly, after years of quietly letting them call the shots in the House. He stood by his criticisms and went on to urge his members not to let outside influence push them around.
“Frankly I think they’re misleading their followers. I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly I just think they’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner told reporters in December, before the budget vote. “There comes a point when people step over the line.”
On matters of policy, however, the tea party groups have considerably shifted the debate to the right, aided at times by a willing Democratic Party, and that may continue unless Democrats find a way to reverse the tide. The farm bill deal, for instance, cuts food stamps by $8 billion over a decade. In some cases, ultraconservative lawmakers are touting their victories, as Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) did upon voting for the budget bill, when he boasted about the huge discretionary spending cuts Republicans have forced under Obama.
“[W]e have done something that I sometimes thought might be impossible: we have changed the direction of spending,” the congressman said.
What all this means is that Congress is likely to spend the coming years steering clear of manufactured crises sparked by the tea party, such as government shutdowns, debt limit breaches and battles over Obamacare funding. But it remains to be seen if this shift will lead to more ambitious goals like immigration reform or passing substantial new economic initiatives. The latter remains a very tough sell, as Obama subtly acknowledged in his State of the Union speech.