Saving Speaker Ryan

by John Lawrence

When the clock strikes midnight tonight, it may well toll the end of the best day in the speakership of Paul Ryan. During today’s ceremony, everyone had their “come let us reason together” faces on, but a few days from now – coincidentally right around Halloween – things might be getting a lot scarier for the new Speaker.

Not that I am wishing the new speaker ill, but as his speech to the House indicated, there are a lot of very challenging issues, particularly within the Republican Conference, that remain unresolved, to put it gently.

In his talk, Ryan tipped his hat to the Tea Party faction that brought down John Boehner due to his unwillingness to subjugate himself to its unrealistic and unrealizable goals. Ryan pledged a “return to regular order,” which roughly translated means allowing legislation to originate in committees rather than in the leadership. “If you know the issue, you should write the bill,” said Ryan, himself past chairman of two committees, an unusual background for one who has become Speaker.

But the Freedom Caucus does not stop at extolling the virtues of committee origination of legislation. However meritorious that process may be, it does tend to empower those who are very close to complex issues (and to the special interests who know the issues and work the committees) to the exclusion of others who may not share the same perspective as committee drafters. That is why the Freedom Caucus also demands an open amendatory process on the House floor. In other words, it wants every Member to be free to offer amendments.

That approach may sound like the personification of a truly democratic House, but it is a certain prescription for disaster, as Speaker Ryan almost certainly knows.   His former committee, Ways and Means, rarely allows many amendments to be offered to its bills on the floor because they would turn the legislation into unrecognizable mush. Bills coming out of committees often reflect strategic compromises that enabled complex bills to move through the panel. Open amendment processes risk unbalancing the legislation to the point that it either has difficulty passing the floor, or no longer reflects the policy so carefully crafted in committee.

Open rules also subject legislation to poison pills that are difficult to defeat or doom the bill, or gotcha amendments that are not designed to pass but only to force political opponents into casting impolitic votes. If the rules process shuts down the amendments that the leadership dislikes, you quickly run into the “neglected minority” about which the new Speaker warned, those who feel excluded from the process and who therefore feel they have little to lose by creating other forms of obstruction and disruption. It is worth remembering that during the 1970s, reformers pressed for more open rules so that amendments challenging committee-reported legislation could be offered. What resulted was a rapid escalation in the number of amendments, a slowing of House operations, and a rise in the number of message amendments designed for gaining political ammunition. In 1969, there were just 177 recorded voted on the House floor; a decade later, after a loosening of the amendment process, that number reached 834; even given the impact of electronic voting on reducing the time it took to take votes, the trend towards more, and more contentious amendments, was clear. Indeed, when Speaker Jim Wright curtailed the abuse of the amendment process by increasingly aggressive Republicans in the late 1980s, Newt Gingrich and his allies cited that constraint as evidence of the tyranny of the Democratic leadership.

The budget and debt ceiling agreement may defer the immediate crises that loomed over Speaker Ryan, specifically the shuttering of the government and default on obligations, but it did little to restore bonhomie within the Republican Conference. A few weeks ago, 151 Republicans were willing to shut down the government over the funding of Planned Parenthood; yesterday, 167 voted against the budget-debt ceiling compromise. Ryan denounced the process, but not the outcome, which was inevitable in order to avert shut-down or default. He will face the exact same choice in the months ahead, and his concessions to the Freedom Caucus today – committee drafting of bills, open amendments, regular order – will not change the choice he will confront: concede to the Tea Party and produce an unenactable bill, or cut them loose and cut a deal with Pelosi and the Democrats, enraging the very people who doomed the Boehner speakership.

One development that is unlikely to occur is the tempering of the Freedom Caucus. They have Mr. Boehner’s head mounted on the wall, and they have made it clear they expect fealty from the new Speaker. The outrage from the far Right is going to build over the next few months as appropriations legislation reflects the higher spending allowed in the budget agreement. That is why Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore called the budget agreement that Ryan supported an “ unconditional fiscal surrender to President Barack Obama and the left … that eliminates all of the checks on Washington’s spend-and-borrow binge by breaking the budget caps, ending the sequester and raising the debt ceiling by over $1 trillion.” If, as Moore declares, “House Speaker John Boehner has negotiated away his greatest legacy,” where does Ryan’s support for the compromise leave him in the eyes of the Right?

It seems pretty clear that having made some procedural concessions to the Freedom Caucus, Ryan now is going to have to pivot and stand up to their unreasonable demands. If he allows them to deprive him of the authority any Speaker needs to manage the House and govern the flow of legislation, he will never recover. One is tempted to remind him of the old maxim quoted by John Kennedy in his own Inaugural 54 years ago, that “those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Ryan cannot look to the Freedom Caucus for help. Saving Speaker Ryan is up to the new Speaker.