We all know Congress sucks. Representatives all too often vote against the interests of the people they represent. But on Wednesday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan insinuated into the Farm Bill an unrelated policy rider so despicable it merits a reminder about just how much Congress sucks.
Quickly: The Farm Bill was a rare piece of legislation that members of Congress from both parties got behind. A few reasons for this. First and foremost, Congress had negotiated this thing for about two years, the clock was running out on important provisions, and farmers across the country truly needed it. Another reason, elections matter: House Republicans lost leverage after November, so they made compromises that attracted Democratic votes. For instance, as Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) pointed out, Republicans agreed to eliminate a provision that imposed strict work requirements for recipients of SNAP, a program that helps feed millions of poor Americans and their families. Democrats favor the program’s basic humanity, and the GOP largely despises it. So that’s a win for Dems. The bill also allots new tools and funds to the National Forest Service to fight and prevent wildfires, a provision we can all get behind, and which is especially important to Feinstein’s constituency. Another win there.
It also included HR6720, the Dog and Cat Meat Prohibition Act of 2018.
Anyway. The Senate voted 83-17 to pass the bill. The House passed it 369-47.
However, that’s only the final vote count in the House. Before the final vote could proceed, the chamber needed to pass a “rules” vote. That vote was much tighter: 206-203. Why?
Because Paul Ryan, of course.
At the last minute, Ryan tucked in a wack-ass rider that prevented the House from taking up a vote on any legislation curbing Presidential War Powers, specifically as they relate to the War in Yemen. Coincidentally, the Senate was poised to pass War Powers legislation later that day. It would have been Congress’s first substantive action to rein in the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed in the wake of September 11 and gives the president sweeping powers to combat the “war on terror.” The new Senate bill would have forced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in or “affecting” Yemen within 30 days, except those actively fighting al-Qaeda. The Farm Bill effectively killed that resolution, because now it can’t pass in the House, and if you remember your high school civics all bills must pass both chambers before going to the president’s desk.
You might reasonably ask, What does the War in Yemen have to do with American farms? Aside from the fact that American farms produce a surplus and Yemen is starving, they’re completely unrelated. Obviously.
Worse, the House Farm Bill rule vote passed by only three yeas, thanks to the support of five Democrats and abstention of seven others. The deplorable five are: Jim Costa (CA), Al Lawson (FL), Collin Peterson (MN), Dutch Ruppersberger (MD) and David Scott (GA). Eighteen Republicans also voted against the rule, most of them members of the House Freedom Caucus.
Look. Elected officials of both parties understand our support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal War in Yemen is objectively, unspeakably heinous, and it needs to stop. President Obama, to his credit, eventually stopped selling arms to the Saudis after being correctly accused several times over his complicity in war crimes. Trump, of course, resumed those sales, for reasons that by now should be quite obvious.
Yes: We’ve committed war crimes. Yes: Even Obama. And we continue to do it. The Saudis, with the help of AUMF-authorized U.S. military support—including weapons systems—have massacred more than 10,000 Yemeni civilians, though considering the length and level of chaos in the war-savaged desert Gulf country, that number is almost certainly low. The Saudis have also put up blockades that have led to starvation and malnutrition on epidemic levels, a hunger crisis the U.N. calls the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The horrors really can’t be described except in pictures, which is why Paste chose to publish some of the most disturbing recent images from that war. If you want to learn more, here are a few in-depth pieces.
The AUMF, however, gives the president essentially unlimited powers to use military force anywhere in any country that harbors terrorists connected to Sept. 11. This means any country where al-Qaeda or its dozens of affiliates operate. This has unsurprisingly gotten wildly out of hand. For instance, we justify military action in Syria because we consider the Islamic State an offshoot of al-Qaeda, even though the two groups are sworn enemies. The Saudi government’s positively medieval murder of Washington Post Jamal Khashoggi, however, has given Congress a reason to finally begin choking out the AUMF, as well as our hypocritical support for the authoritarian Saudi monarchy.
Please read about Yemen, because you’ll be better than Democratic Representative Colin Peterson, who cast his rules vote with the GOP. Why? Peterson said they’d worked on the bill for years, adding he didn’t know “a damn thing” about the War in Yemen.
Shocker: Members of Congress—and perhaps your own representatives—can be forced or cajoled into doing the wrong thing. The political consequences might be steep enough that they don’t even put thought into the most pressing moral issues of our time. Anyway, here’s the point, probably best articulated by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA): “This is why people hate Congress.”
Our legislative process is rotten. We’ve grown polarized, and as a result the political consequences for stepping out of line have grown more extreme. Lawmakers have responded with cowardice, neglect, and partisan obstructionism. Perhaps the most famous example is Mitch McConnell’s months-long block on confirmation hearings for Obama SCOTUS nominee Merrick Garland. Not only did this deny a rightful and critical appointment, it interfered with the actual work of the Supreme Court, depriving it of a justice, one who in many cases would have cast a deciding ruling. Wednesday is a painful reminder that this responsibility doesn’t lie only at the GOP’s feet, either. The system doesn’t serve the people anymore. With a few exceptions, the system mostly serves the system.
Of course, this isn’t news—we see this sabotage all the time. Take for instance pork barrel legislation, essentially bribes for support. Leadership will often include line items in bills that appeal to specific representatives, such as increases in private military spending that benefit states where Lockheed employs thousands of voters. And there’s the opposite: wrecking amendments (also called “poison pills”), intended to tank a bill with amendments that make votes untenable. This can be used to absolve them from the responsibility of going on record to oppose a bill, or to force other legislators to go on record as opposing a seemingly reasonable bill. Even though the truth might be different, it’s also more complicated, and lawmakers know most people don’t know or care.
We saw this with Obamacare, where GOP lawmakers used the technique as a way to impugn opponents as obstructionists who voted against a repeal dozens of times. We’ve also seen this with budget votes. Here are several examples of this from the 2017 appropriations bill, including blocking the overtime pay increase rule and allowing D.C. businesses to fire workers because of reproductive health decisions, i.e., abortion. Here are some more wrecking amendments the GOP slipped into a budget resolution.
The whole idea, of course, is to force people to vote in their own interest over that of the American people, and often over that of their own constituents. Until and unless the consequences of stoking popular outrage about the legislative process outweigh the consequences of stoking partisan outrage, it won’t stop. Sadly, the truth is that—often understandably—the vast majority of Americans either don’t know enough about what exactly is corroding the process or don’t have the time or inclination to learn about it. More contemptibly, though, voters—especially GOP voters—are too concerned with empty partisan “wins” to care either way, even if it means we contribute to the worst humanitarian disaster in the world.
And that, folks, is why people hate Congress. Including Congress.