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Paul Ryan Wants To Be Speaker On His Own Terms


So if you don’t want a job – really, really don’t want it – one way to approach the job interview is to act like a Millennial. That is, to make clear you have some very high expectations for what the new employer will do for you. Extremely high. Like, twice as much vacation time, totally flexible telecommuting, setting up a new game room, stocking the right kinds of ethically sourced snacks, and getting rid of the two-century-old functional rules of the House of Representatives as written by Thomas Jefferson himself.

Paul Ryan has included that last one in his requirements for taking the job third in line to the presidency, and that’s not all. He has a list of demands, written on the palm of his hand, and if you want him to be your blue-eyed boy for the job, you better believe he wants all of them and everything. Paul Ryan is basically telling House Republicans: you best recognize that I’m your only Paul Ryan.

Dan McLaughlin has a great piece out this morning outlining how Ryan’s approach to this job parallels William of Orange in its deployment of political leverage. Strategically, this puts House conservatives and anyone who wants the Speakership to function in a less authoritarian model in a real bind.

For the time being, The Freedom Caucus is wary of Ryan’s demands:

“After Ryan addressed Republicans late Tuesday, saying he would need conservative backing to run, lawmakers in the 40-member group of hard-line conservatives came away wary of the Ways and Means chief’s demand for unconditional support. They were dismissive of his Ryan’s request that they relinquish a procedural tactic they used to threaten to strip outgoing Speaker John Boehner of his title – one of the most potent weapons in the group’s arsenal. And it is clear the conservative lawmakers will insist on more specifics from Ryan before they would consider an endorsement. Sources within the caucus said he’ll have to discuss policy and procedural changes the Freedom Caucus wants and offer up tangible promises to decentralize power from leadership to rank-and-file members if he wants their backing.”

And who can blame them? If the point of the rebellion against John Boehner was changing the way the House operates, decentralizing power, and changing the way policy is made, then what do Ryan’s remarks yesterday tell you? Not much at all. Ryan’s brief nod to rules changes indicated no serious devotion to the priorities of decentralization of the House. He talked briefly about the need for rules changes to be made as a team, since they impact the entire Congress. He talked more about the need for the next Speaker to be a visionary communicator putting big ideas in front of the country (yay, histograms!); about the need for the Freedom Caucus to lay down their arms and reverse centuries of parliamentary procedure; his need to put his family first and spend less time on the road; and the need for unity in the conference for him to take the job, or else he’ll be perfectly happy to stay at Ways and Means.

No More Vacating the Chair

Of all of these demands, stripping the ability of The Freedom Caucus (or anyone else) to make a motion to vacate the chair is the most extreme. If the Revolution of 1800 matters at all to today’s Congress, it matters because Thomas Jefferson won the argument about what the defined Constitutional role of Congress should be vis a vis the executive branch, and won it definitively. He published the rule that is the basis for this motion, along with all the others, in a manual (which the House formally incorporated) as his last act as a member of Congress, the week before he was inaugurated as president. Getting rid of such practices after they have served the nation well for more than two centuries is not a small thing, nor is it a small thing that Ryan would demand it as a condition of him taking the job.

Which is why it’s also potentially a shiny object, and the one demand Ryan may not get. There is no incentive here for The Freedom Caucus to give up that power, nor is it necessarily wise to do in the long run. The Freedom Caucus needs to focus on the priority of structural reform of the House. They should keep their heads, not get distracted, extract conference and House rules concessions, and move on – just like they were planning to do with Kevin McCarthy.

It is not the job of The Freedom Caucus to make Paul Ryan take the Speakership if he doesn’t want it.

A Time for Disruption

Ryan is likely the most competent leader in the Conference and he would doubtlessly be a good Speaker on his own terms. He cares more about doing stuff than being Speaker. But he should recognize we have passed the point where the old legislative process, the Tom DeLay model so fondly missed by the establishment and the appropriators, can be put back together again.

It’s time for something new, and the structural reforms that need to happen in the House ought to be the priority now. As Mike Lee put it the other day:

“Internally, too, the Republican majority should modernize and decentralize the legislative process according to the same principles. We need to move power out of congressional leadership and into the hands of rank-and-file members. We need to make more decisions in public, on the House and Senate floors, and fewer in secret meetings behind closed doors. We need to move legislative action away from the rigid, outdated committee structure and into more flexible, open-source networks of members. After years of frustrating dysfunction, conservatives should recognize that the only way we can reform policy is to first reform the way we make policy.”

Leadership races are internal questions. The external forces agitating against Ryan will have very little impact on what will result. But given the height of these demands he’s presented, it’s clear some members are going to have to relinquish serious parliamentary power in order to achieve Ryan’s definition of what unification looks like – which could be a step toward reforming the institution, one that will turn the Speakership into a stronger and more unassailable role than it has ever been, or both.

Paul Ryan is not content to take on the job of fulfilling the same Constitutional role and owing the same parliamentary obligations as John Boehner. He wants more. And if House Republicans want him, they’ll likely have to give it.