By Robert Novak
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, at age 38 and having served less than five terms, did not leap over a dozen of his seniors to become ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee by bashing GOP leaders. But an angry Ryan last Wednesday delivered unscripted remarks on the House floor as the farm bill neared passage: "This bill is an absence of leadership. This bill shows we are not leading."
Ryan's fellow reformer, 45-year-old Jeff Flake of Arizona, in his fourth term, is less cautious about defying the leadership and has been kept off key committees. On Wednesday, he said of a $300 billion bill that raises farm subsidies and is filled with non-farm pork, "Sometimes, here in Washington, we tend to drink our own bath water and believe our own press releases."
A majority of both Senate and House Republicans voted for a bill that raises spending 44 percent above last year's, dooming chances to sustain President Bush's promised veto. GOP leaders were divided, with Bush sounding an uncertain trumpet. Today's Republican Party -- divided, drifting, demoralized -- is epitomized by the farm bill.
At the moment Congress passed the farm bill, Republican were terrified by the previous day's defeat in the Mississippi 1st Congressional District, the third straight supposedly safe Republican seat lost in special elections. Fearing a November tsunami for the Democrats, incumbent Republicans talked about following their new standard-bearer, John McCain, against pork. But that's not the way they voted last week.
George W. Bush was just as ambivalent last week. In 2002, he signed a massive farm bill. But with Democrats in control of Congress, Bush preaches the old time religion. Addressing the House Republican caucus behind closed doors at the White House May 7, he disclosed that he would veto the farm bill, then implied it was all right if members "voted their districts" -- that is, if the "aggies" supported the bill. This message was pressed on his colleagues by Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.
Nevertheless, would the party's leadership in Congress push hard enough to produce enough votes to sustain a veto? There was never any hope in the Senate, where Republican Leader Mitch McConnell not only supported the farm bill but earmarked a tax provision benefiting horse farms in his state of Kentucky. But in the House, Republican Leader John Boehner always has been anti-pork, even if passive about exhorting other Republicans to follow his example.
On May 9, Flake sent Boehner a candid letter: "We need more than individual members of the Republican leadership to state their opposition to the bill. We need the leadership to use its good offices to explain the importance of sustaining the president's veto as opposed to advising members to 'vote their districts.'"
Boehner, waiting four days before responding, last Tuesday rejected the "vote their districts" escape for House Republicans: "I believe they should also vote their consciences, and cast their votes in a manner consistent with the small government principles upon which our party was founded." Boehner took the floor Wednesday to speak against the bill.
But nobody cracked the party whip. On the contrary, Minority Whip Roy Blunt voted for the bill. So did Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam, who was seen whipping votes for passage. House Republicans voted 100 to 91 to approve the bill (with only 15 Democrats in opposition), assuring an overriden veto. Similarly, in the Senate, Republicans voted 35 to 13 for the bill, and the only Democrats opposing it were Rhode Island's two senators.
That did not conclude the dismal Republican performance for the week, as lawmakers raced out Thursday for their usual long weekend. Seventeen pork-minded Republican senators gave the Democratic leadership necessary support to waive from the farm bill the brand new ban of earmarks on a bill that had cleared both houses. Thirty-two craven Republican House members voted for upper-bracket tax increases to finance new veterans benefits. They all return to work this week to encounter a new comprehensive reform introduced by Paul Ryan on health care, Social Security and taxes -- titled "A Roadmap for American's Future." If anybody needs a roadmap, it's Ryan's colleagues.