'Dangerously Incapable of Governing': Congress Begins Fourth of July Recess with Host of Urgent Issues Unresolved

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WASHINGTON * As Congress began its annual Fourth of July recess, members left the capital with a host of urgent national issues unresolved: immigration reform, the farm bill, and the long-sought, steadfastly evasive "grand bargain" of a budget.

It is fitting that Congress contemplate these issues on this holiday in particular because, at their deepest level, the politics of all three issues entail fundamental debates about what America is and what it should be. The Founding Fathers gave the nation a Constitution, but that Constitution leaves most of the hard decisions up to the people, and the people of the United States have rarely been so ideologically divided.

In mid-June, the farm bill failed to secure passage in the House when Democrats abandoned their support in the face of $20 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) and conservative Republicans refused to support the bill because the cuts were not deeper.

"Last week's 'farm bill fail' in the House confirms what many Congress-watchers have long feared: Our legislative branch is dangerously incapable of governing," said Matt Green, an expert on Congress at The Catholic University of America in Washington. "There are plenty of reasons for this dysfunction, but the biggest problem, as I see it, is House Republicans. It's not just that they are ideologically divided. Too many of them are afraid of, or detest, the idea of compromise. And the party's leaders seem unable to even count votes, let alone lead."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied hard for preventing the cuts to SNAP. "The farm bill is essential legislation that determines our country's food and agriculture policy" said Kathy Salle, director of domestic policy at the bishops' conference. "It is the road map for how our country treats hungry people at home and abroad." For years, the farm bill has enjoyed wide bipartisan support, with rural Republican representatives backing its subsidies for farmers and liberal Democrats backing the food stamp program.

Green cites two reasons why the demise of the farm bill bodes ill for other issues like immigration reform. "The first was that Republican leaders were caught off-guard. Rule No. 1 for a majority party is to only hold votes when you know the likely outcome. That's a rookie mistake, and leaders who want to enact something as delicate as immigration reform can't afford to make rookie errors," Green said. "The second thing that struck me was the number of Republicans who voted for an amendment to make the bill more conservative, yet still voted against the final bill. It was, in retrospect, a wasted effort of party leaders to support that amendment."

The politics of immigration reform are different from other issues, however Individual Republican members of Congress may feel the need to oppose any bill that grants a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But they may also realize that if they block immigration reform, no Republican will win the White House in the near future. Last year Barack Obama took 71 percent of the Latino vote to Mitt Romney's 27 percent, and Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in the electorate. If the 2012 electorate had the racial characteristics of the 2000 electorate, Romney probably could have won. In 2016, the electorate will include even more Latinos and other minorities, not fewer.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who is Catholic, will ultimately decide if he wants to bring an immigration bill to the floor even if it lacks the support of a majority of his caucus. "What will matter is not how many Republican votes [Boehner] gets but whether a majority of his caucus quietly decides that passing immigration reform is better for the party than blocking it is," E.J. Dionne wrote in The Washington Post. "Many in such a majority might actually vote against a bill they privately want to see enacted. …