The Food Stamps Vote, and the House Democrats' Ability to Torture Boehner

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 20 2013 8:45 AM

The Food Stamps Vote, and the House Democrats' Ability to Torture Boehner

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Should Democrats pin this guy, or help him up from the mat, enrage him, and hand him an assault weapon?

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Early on Thursday evening, as House Republicans were still brushing confetti off their shoulders from the "defund Obamcare in the CR!" party, they barely passed a new version of the food stamps bill. They'd been unable to pass this funding in the standard way, by combining it with the farm bill, so that rural and urban members* have equal buy-in. Democrats had joined with Republicans to kill a comprehensive farm bill that cut the funding for food stamps. So Republicans split the legislation, passing a farm bill, then passing a food stamps bill that cut the program by $39 billion over a decade, a 5 percent reduction.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

Once again, Democrats refused to give Republicans any cover. None of the 200 Democrats currently serving in the House voted for the bill. Sixteen Republicans voted against it or didn't vote—not the usual hard-core conservative suspects, but ambitious or suburban Republicans like West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo. (Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey, who complained in a meeting this week that he only makes $172,000 a year, voted for the cuts.)

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What does any of this mean for the CR? The version that defunds Obamacare will pass today; Republicans have already scheduled an 11 a.m. rally to celebrate that. Noam Scheiber argues that Democrats (and the White House) should let Boehner twist in the wind and deny the support that could salvage the CR when it comes back to the House.

What’s completely nuts is for Democrats to help Boehner pull this off when he otherwise couldn’t. One is tempted to describe it as helping an opponent off the mat when you have him nearly pinned, except that this would be far, far worse. It would be more like helping an opponent off the mat in such a way as to send him into a homicidal rage, then sticking an assault weapon in his hand and then trying to reason with him. Why on earth would anyone do that? 
Unfortunately, that’s exactly where we’re headed. The White House seems to think that helping Boehner avoid a shutdown will buy it some good will. In reality, avoiding the shutdown that the Tea Partiers have elevated into a test of ideological purity will only further enrage them.

The White House and Democrats are really invested in the public impression that they act in good faith and the GOP is constantly hankering for a crisis. Scheiber's strategem would play into the Ted Cruz theory, to an extent—a shutdown would be Democrats' "fault" because they could bail out Boehner and didn't. If they really think they could avoid blame for a shutdown, the strategy makes sense, assuming one more factor—that the public would actually understand and fear a shutdown. Given how little they've feared sequestration, I wouldn't bet much on this plan.

*Yes, food stamps don't just go to poor people in the cities, I know. But the political perception, for some Republicans worried about their voters, is that voting for food stamps is voting for layabouts sitting around surfing in LA or running scams in Detroit.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.