WASHINGTON — Members of the Texas congressional delegation achieved a new level of acrimony Thursday as Democratic U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela accused his fellow Texan and Republican colleague U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway of being "a racist Christian pretender."
The issue at hand was a dry one — how best to fund a government agency that doles out subsidies to farmers adversely affected by the trade war President Donald Trump is waging with China. But it was apparent in a House Agriculture Committee hearing and in Vela's subsequent allegations that the public airing of tensions was a long time coming.
“Let me just put it this way: There are other members of the Texas delegation that are leaving, and I would not say any of these things about them. So, good riddance," Vela, a Brownsville Democrat, later told The Texas Tribune in an interview, referring to Conaway's recent retirement announcement.
The ire was the result of days' worth of heated negotiations over how the government would fund the Market Facilitation Program, the government arm that pays out subsidies to farmers hurt by new tariffs. But it was also the culmination of months — if not years — of escalating tensions within Washington.
Hashing out differences in deeply personal exchanges online and in the press is an increasingly common form of politics. The only surprise to many on Capitol Hill was that the commentary happened in the House Agriculture Committee, which is considered one of the last bastions of bipartisanship in all of Congress.
"I’m stunned," U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, said in a statement to the Tribune. "Filemon knows better than to use this type of hateful rhetoric, especially about Mike Conaway of all people. Mike is highly respected, thoughtful and has a reputation as being willing to work across the aisle to find solutions both parties can support."
The impetus for this most recent flareup came when some senior House Democrats wanted to freeze trade aid to farmers amid spending negotiations as the fiscal year draws to a close Sept. 30.
The trade aid issue was eventually resolved Wednesday as Democrats on the committee successfully pushed for similar language as in past years, but with the addition of requiring the Trump administration to clarify the kind of damage the trade war is inflicting on American agriculture and whether foreign businesses are the beneficiaries of the aid.
On Thursday morning, Vela co-chaired an agricultural subcommittee hearing, and Conaway, the top Republican on the committee, was visibly angry as he delivered remarks calling Democrats "shameful" for creating uncertainty in the agriculture community.
"It's entirely something else to have the powers of this body be using those same good people as leverage because you simply just don't like President Trump," he said.
"It's one thing for one of our colleagues to list donors of President Trump to try to harass their businesses and hurt them financially. ... It's entirely different for this body, this body, to do the exact same thing with this funding mechanism that has always gone forward without impediments."
Vela reserved his fire for Twitter.
"Our caucus doesn't need to be lectured by a racist Christian pretender who led the effort to starve America's poor," Vela tweeted late Thursday morning, referring to Conaway. "Every Democratic member of this committee championed the efforts to protect MFP in this week’s CR negotiations."
He later elaborated to the Tribune that the remark was in reference to the 2018 Farm Bill, Conaway's legacy legislation during his tenure as chairman of the committee. The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that handles funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly known as the food stamp program — and crop subsidies. Conaway put up a fierce but unsuccessful fight to increase work requirements to SNAP benefits.
“My comment about him being a racist Christian pretender comes with a reason,” Vela said. “This is a guy who, when we would have two agriculture meetings in the morning, he would start each of them with a prayer while at the same time attempting to gut nutrition programs that keep food away from America’s poor. To me, his positions to the negotiations to the 2018 Farm Bill were so hypocritical in nature that I’ve been wanting to say that all along.”
Vela added that he was frustrated that Conaway, in those committee remarks, did not clarify that some Democrats — including Vela — were opposed to the trade aid freezes.
“Other than the fact that he’s a chicken shit generally, it was just wrong for him to suggest that Democratic members had something to do with that," Vela said. "We were the ones who fought our own leadership on it.”
Conaway did acknowledge the Democratic schism Wednesday, writing in a statement that "House Democratic leaders are not listening to their own rank and file members and continue to hold vital aid for our farmers and ranchers hostage."
Conaway, however, did not directly respond to the racial and religious accusations in a Thursday statement on Twitter.
"It is the height of irony that today we sat in a hearing with [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] about how we can better provide assistance to producers, while the past several days House Democratic leadership threatened to hold these programs hostage by blocking funding for critical farm bill and trade assistance programs," he said. "This was nothing more than a political game for the Democrats and an attempt to try and defy our president.
"While I'm pleased Democrats came to their senses, it's shameful that they attempted to score political points on the back of rural America," he added.
Vela's comments came during a rather bipartisan couple of days in the Washington, shortly after the House reached a deal with Republicans on government funding.
On Wednesday night, the House Appropriations Committee released a stopgap funding bill that would fund the government past the Sept. 30 deadline, pushing other partisan arguments over spending to mid-November and avoiding a government shutdown. The final House spending bill includes provisions requiring the Department of Agriculture to provide state-by-state data on the effects of the administration’s trade war.
The Democratic-controlled House passed the resolution Thursday in a 301-123 vote, and it's expected to pass the Senate next week.
This isn’t the first less-than-diplomatic statement Vela has gotten attention for. In June 2016, the Brownsville congressman penned a letter to Trump telling him, “Mr. Trump, you’re a racist and you can take your border wall and shove it up your ass.”
And just this July, Vela and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “is now in complete chaos” after several black and Hispanic members of Congress voiced concerns over lack of diversity in the DCCC and called for Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, to replace the executive director of the DCCC with a person of color.
On Thursday night, U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Lubbock, said in a statement that he was disappointed in Vela's most recent comments.
"Representative Vela’s comments were uncalled for and completely untrue," Arrington said. "It’s one thing to attack someone’s policy positions, but entirely another to attack someone’s character and motives. Mike Conaway is one of the most decent people I know — a man of strong faith and unquestionable integrity."
Correction: A previous version of this story included incorrect information about a change some members of Congress wanted to see at the DCCC. The story has been updated to say that they called for the chairwoman to replace the executive director of the DCCC with a person of color.