As Paste documented Wednesday, House Republicans pulled a fast one by sneaking a provision about the war in Yemen—namely, forbidding any debate or resolution regarding whether the U.S. should be involved in Saudi Arabia’s proxy conflict against Iran, which has led to tens of thousands of dead civilians, many of them children, and caused widespread famine that has affected millions—into a domestic farm bill.
The strategy—and the implicit threat—was clear: If you want to pass a resolution about Yemen (as the Senate is about to do), you have to vote against the farm bill, and that vote will be used against you dishonestly in future campaigns.
If it seems ridiculous that this tactic of combining two entirely different issues in a single bill would even be allowed, well…welcome to American governance. Have a Simpsons meme:
Somewhat amazingly, though, there was dissent in the Republican ranks! Seventeen GOP reps decided to cross the aisle and vote against the bill once the Yemen nonsense was added in. That meant that if Democrats stuck together, they could defeat the tactic and force the opposition to pass the farm bill in good faith. One of the Republicans even tweeted angrily about his own leadership:
Unfortunately, Democrats did not stick together. Five of them voted “yes” on the bill, and seven more—including Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, alleged progressives—abstained:
That meant the final vote was 206-203 in favor of the farm bill, which tables all discussion of Yemen. This is a failure of leadership—why was Steny Hoyer, minority whip, not doing his job?—but it's also an indication of how willing many Democrats are, over and over again, to play by corrupt Republican rules. The GOP bullying tactic worked for the simple reason that they have a better understanding of power, as always, and Democrats seem to accept their terms without a fight and cede critical ground out of fear.
One Democrat, though, really stood out, and that was Minnesota's Collin Peterson. Jeff Stein of the Washington Post caught up with him after the vote, and their exchange has to be seen to be believed:
For those who can’t read that tweet, here are the money quotes from Peterson:
On the bill: “We’ve worked for two years on this farm bill, and I’ll be damned if I let anybody screw it up.”
On Yemen: “I don’t know a damn thing about it, and it should be in there and it — it didn’t do anything anyway…all it did was say they couldn’t have a vote or something. Didn’t authorize anything, it didn’t – you know. Our party gets off on tangents. It’s ridiculous.”
That is, frankly, embarrassing, and I don’t know where the criticism should begin. The easy target, of course, is his total lack of concern for a humanitarian crisis that is being propagated and aggravated by the country he represents in one of its highest governing bodies. The second is his seeming belief that “our party,” i.e. the Democrats, are somehow responsible for the Yemen provision, when this was clearly a Republican tactic. Third is his ignorance about the pressure such a resolution could put on President Trump, especially a bipartisan one coming from both chambers of Congress. In short, he fundamentally misunderstands (or doesn’t care) about America’s role in a foreign conflict, and also has a child’s understanding of congressional procedure and influence.
May I remind you: Knowing all that stuff is Collin Peterson’s job. Wearing blinders, on the other hand, is not.
Now, as you might guess, Peterson represents a district that is both rural and purplish, meaning his support of the farm bill is likely crucial to winning elections (despite his seniority, he only won by five points in 2018), and farming is a big part of his job—he will likely be the chair of the Agriculture Committee when the new session convenes in January. On the surface, it’s easy to understand why he let Republicans bully him. But that’s no excuse—in fact, Peterson is exactly the kind of high-ranking representative who needs to stand up against these tactics, and take on the responsibility of explaining to voters what’s really happening. In other words, he needs to be a leader in seizing the narrative and illustrating that it’s Republicans holding the farm bill hostage, not Democrats. Instead, he capitulated without a fight, and proved himself a very soft target.
This is not to give any of the other Democrats a pass—they should all be held accountable and provide an explanation—but simply to single out someone who demonstrated his incompetence for all to see. The cliche “this is why we can’t have nice things” is overused, but seriously, Democrats like Collin Peterson are the reason why national progress gets halted in its tracks, and, in this case, why the executive branch is allowed to perpetuate a nightmarish war that has literally no popular support among the people it is meant to represent.