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The death rattle of bipartisanship

This post originally appeared on Slate.

When the bipartisan machine breaks down, it collapses in ways that can be seen and unseen. The saga of the farm bill gives us examples of both. For the last 40 years, the bill has passed through an unofficial agreement between urban liberals and rural conservatives. The former got funding for food stamps and the latter got farm subsidies. Yesterday, the farm bill passed the House without this deal in place. For the first time since the 1970s, the bill did not include funding for food stamps. No Democrats voted for it. The jalopy of bipartisanship has been going through a prolonged collapse. Still, it's notable when the usual death rattle is augmented by a convulsion that throws off a wheel.

The farm bill episode also highlights a less visible part of the machine that's going kaput: congressional orgies. Actually, that's not the topic of this piece. Congressional conference committees are the topic of this piece, but I thought I might lose your attention on a summer weekend. Congressional conference committees are important because they are the mechanism that has often been used to hammer out deals for the most contentious pieces of legislation. They haven't undergone a public undoing like the one at the heart of the farm bill, but they are fading away.

Let's review the parts of the bipartisan machine that have already broken down. Members of Congress from opposite parties don't socialize much any more. The earmarks and pork that helped leaders buy the votes of reluctant legislators are now gone. Gerrymandering and demographic shifts bunch like-minded voters together and make districts more partisan. Republicans, in particular, are more fearful of primary challenges and are reluctant to compromise for fear of getting one. Grassroots organizations on both sides have harnessed technology to become more effective at spotlighting anything that looks like a break with orthodoxy and exacting revenge.

Many of these political arrangements that improved deal-making were not set in stone. That was true of the rural and urban consensus that held the farm bill together. The conference committee is a more formal structure though. It is the procedure for reconciling the differences between legislation that has passed the House and the Senate on the same topic but in different forms. It is not the only way to pass legislation, but it has often been deployed for the most controversial bills. It offered the appearance that each side was getting a fair hearing, while the venue was small enough to allow everyone to have an old-fashioned working relationship that is necessary to finesse the details so that a final deal can be reached.

The congressional conference committee has always been in flux--shaped by the partisan makeup of the two houses of Congress. But the shift now seems bigger, from a mechanism to reconcile the views of competing bodies to a forum for reconciling the views of competing ideologies. It seems useless--or at least unused.

The farm bill offers a good example of its troubled recent history. Several weeks ago when the House was not able to pass a farm bill, House Republican leaders were angry with the small band of Democrats who had withdrawn their support for it at the last minute. This didn't make sense, since a big group of GOP conservatives had not voted for the bill and were heralding its defeat, but Republican leaders were angry at Democrats because they had broken an arrangement based on a tacit understanding of how the bill might change on its way to becoming law. The argument Republicans were making to Democrats went something like this: Vote for a bill that you don't completely like to get to conference committee. Once the bill makes it to the conference committee, it will be melded to the Senate bill and the final product will be something you can live with. Why would Democrats agree to this? Because if they didn't, House Republicans would produce a bill that was so conservative the differences could never be reconciled in committee and nothing would happen. Or worse: a bill would pass with measures they didn't like.

Farm bill defeated in House: Why it matters

Republican leaders thought they had enough Democrats who appreciated the long game, but if that were ever the case, those Democrats were spooked at the last minute as Republicans added amendments undermining the food stamp program that seemed impossible to fix through the committee process. Democrats balked.

Republican leaders went back to their members and changed their strategy. They dropped the food stamp provision of the bill in order to attract House conservatives. But their vote is contingent on the farm bill not changing very much in committee. If it does, those conservative Republicans will balk the way they did last time. "We highly suspect that this whole process is a 'rope-a-dope' exercise" of "splitting up the farm bill only as a means to get to conference with the Senate where a bicameral back-room deal will reassemble the commodity and food stamp titles, leaving us back where we started," the conservative Club for Growth said in a statement.

This now sets up a furious battle with the Democrats in the Senate and President Obama who has threatened to veto the bill. Given how different the House position is from the Senate one, there's very little chance the conference committee is going to be useful as a mechanism to sort anything out, but it's better for House Republicans politically to pass something and engage in a fight that will produce nothing than have the House offer nothing at all.

When you send a piece of legislation into a process designed to change it on the assumption that it isn't going to get changed, you're not treating the process seriously. Republicans have used a version of this same argument to keep the budget from getting to conference. In that case, a move to reconcile the House and Senate budgets puts Republicans in a tight spot. Under the rules of the Budget Act, any budget that emerges from the conference process is brought up under the rules of reconciliation, which means it would only need a simple majority to pass the Senate. It couldn't be filibustered. That would give Republicans less leverage. So Republicans have refused to go forward with the conference process, arguing that there's no point in going to conference when the two sides are so far apart. Democrats did a version of the same thing with Obamacare. They skipped conference to rob Republicans of a chance to use procedural maneuvers to thwart passage.

The reason that having a conference is important--even if you worry about what might result--is that it at least moves the legislative process away from the slapdash, last-minute deal. It also provides one of the last places to use the process to improve a piece of legislation's chances. If it emerges from conference, it might gain legitimacy that will help it pass when both houses of Congress vote on the final product. That is a dubious proposition--the whole notion of momentum in politics is under assault--but the prospect of the conference committee doing real work is alive enough that comprehensive immigration reform opponents don't want to see it. Andrew Stiles outlines nine reasons comprehensive immigration reform opponents are nervous about a conference committee. Perhaps the only reason they need is that John McCain, a member of the Gang of Eight pushing reform, emerged from a White House meeting saying, "We want legislation that we can go to conference on." McCain's bet is that if it can get to conference and some compromise can be found, House Republicans will be forced to vote for it.

For McCain, getting to conference is part of doing the job of accomplishing something. For hard-core conservatives--like the ones McCain battled over moving the budget to conference committee--it is a capitulation party. It used to be that the problem in Washington was that opposing sides got into a room and couldn't agree. Now they can't even get into the room.

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