There is no doubt that Paul Ryan faces a difficult, bordering on impossible task after being elected the 54th speaker of the House.
The media has already reported endlessly about the challenges he’ll face from his right flank. They wail about the Freedom Caucus’ extreme demands and inexhaustible intransigence. Take the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza for example:
The problem for Ryan, Gowdy and anyone else who is thinking about being speaker can be explained in a very simple math problem. Republicans currently control 247 seats. There are, roughly, 40 Republican members — the vast majority of whom identify with the tea party-affiliated Freedom Caucus — who will vote against the wishes of leadership on almost any major measure unless the leadership adopts a very conservative stance. If you subtract 40 from 247, you get 207 — 11 votes short of what a speaker would need to pass a piece of legislation without relying on any Democratic votes.
A Republican speaker who needs to always lean on Democrats to pass anything doesn’t really have all that much power. And every time he (or she) leans on Democrats to pass something, that power erodes even more. (See: Boehner, John.)
But his job is much harder than simply catering to a caucus that he is ideologically aligned with. He also has to find peace among the more moderate members of the GOP, many of whom come from purple-ish districts that may not abide a Tea Party agenda. To understand the difficulty, take a look at Timothy Carney’s examination of the problem in the Washington Examiner:
House Speaker Paul Ryan has a harder job than many of his predecessors. Rarely has the speaker had to deal with such an irresponsible and unserious group of politicians so uninterested in good governance.
This dangerous group goes by many names including: “the Establishment,” the “centrists,” and the “bipartisan consensus.” . . .
But Ryan on Thursday promised a clean slate. He came to the speaker’s chair thanks to a rebellion by members outside of the bipartisan establishment. Maybe Ryan can save the country from the reckless band of lawmakers who are wreaking havoc in Congress.
To accept either of these as insurmountable challenges is to assume something about Ryan. He is either a squishy moderate who will have to begrudgingly move right in order to not face the same fate as Boehner. Or Ryan is a die-hard conservative who will have to compromise his principles in order to maintain the centrist Republican vote. But Ryan is seeking to defy labels. He’s seeking a clean slate.
“[L]et’s be frank: The House is broken,” Ryan said is remarks after being elected speaker. “We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean. Neither the members nor the people are satisfied with how things are going. We need to make some changes, starting with how the House does business.”
This blog has already touched on the numerous reforms Ryan seeks to make in the process, from re-empowering committees, to opening up the amendment process, to returning to regular order. But these are more than procedural changes, these are a return to conservative governing principles.
“We are the body closest to the people. Every two years, we face the voters–and sometimes face the music,” Ryan said. “But we do not echo the people. We represent them. We are supposed to study up and do the homework that they cannot do. . . Only a fully functioning House can truly represent the people.”
“We solve problems here. Yes we create a lot of them, too. But at bottom, we vindicate a way of life: We show by our work that free people can govern themselves,” he continued.
And there is a lot of work to be done. As Ryan noted, Americans feel as though they are stuck. They’re working harder than ever for a paycheck that isn’t growing. And they’re paychecks aren’t going as far because things like health care, college tuition and taxes keep going up. They’re not necessarily looking for help, but they are at least looking to Washington to give them an opportunity, and instead “all they see is chaos.”
“What a relief to them it would be if we finally got our act together–what a weight off their shoulders,” Ryan said. “At this point nothing could be more inspiring than a job well done. Nothing could stir the heart more than real, concrete results.”
Will Ryan be the leader House Republicans need to achieve those results? We hope so. But he’s doomed to fail if the debate is focused solely on which faction of the Republican Party should prevail, and not over the role of government versus free markets in society.
Photo credit: William Saturn