WASHINGTON – A week ago, Paul Ryan looked doomed. Now, he looks really, truly doomed.
The Wisconsin Republican, who achieved national prominence as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, seems more likely than ever to become the next speaker of the House. A devout man of faith, he will need your prayers.
When incumbent John Boehner announced his resignation, Ryan made clear he did not want the job. Who on earth would? Boehner spent his whole tenure trying – and failing – to corral ultraconservative Republicans into a working majority.
GOP victories in the 2010 midterm election had swept into office a group of nihilistic renegades who believe the way to change Washington is to blow it up.
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Now calling themselves the Freedom Caucus, these 40 or so legislative bomb-throwers insisted on fighting battles they had no chance of winning and repeatedly took the country to the brink of calamity.
They threatened government shutdowns (and achieved one). They tried to block routine increases in the federal debt ceiling. They kept the House from passing spending bills in key areas, such as transportation, where there once was bipartisan agreement. They insisted on more than 50 useless attempts to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act, knowing these measures would fail in the Senate or be vetoed by President Obama.
As presumptive speaker, Ryan can look forward to more of the same.
Ryan is seen as the only figure who could potentially unite the fractious GOP caucus. As such, he has leverage – and he is trying his best to use it.
He insisted on having the support of all 247 Republicans before he would accept the job. But now he is reportedly willing to settle for less.
The Freedom Caucus announced Wednesday that a “supermajority” of its members would back Ryan. There was no official endorsement from the group, however, which means the unspecified majority fell short of 80 percent.
That doesn’t sound so bad – perhaps 10 or fewer unreconciled renegades, who theoretically could be marginalized. “I believe this is a positive step toward a unified Republican team,” Ryan said. But in courting the ultraconservatives, he reportedly made concessions that seem to guarantee that the speaker’s gavel will be a symbol of misery, not of power.
The main problem is that Ryan is said to have promised to follow the “Hastert rule,” named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, requiring that legislation have the support of a majority of the GOP caucus before it is brought to the House floor.
Boehner had to break the Hastert rule whenever ultraconservatives threatened to bring about disaster – a potentially catastrophic default because the debt limit needed to be raised, for example. In those instances, Boehner got the legislation passed with a cobbled-together majority comprising Democrats and moderate Republicans.
To keep his job, Boehner generally kept to the Hastert rule on other, less critical legislation. This is what made the Congresses he led so spectacularly unproductive.
In 2013, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Had Boehner brought the legislation to the floor of the House, it almost surely would have passed – but with the votes of Democrats and GOP moderates. A majority of the Republican caucus opposed comprehensive reform, and so Boehner never allowed a vote on it.
Immigration, at least, is a hot-button issue; transportation is not. Yet Boehner could not even get a majority of his caucus to support a routine six-year transportation bill. This is the kind of legislation that used to be a simple matter of arithmetic and routinely passed with broad bipartisan support. For today’s House Republicans, however, fixing roads and bridges is somehow an ideological issue. Just about everything, in fact, is an ideological issue.
If Ryan does become speaker and respects the Hastert rule, he will end up in the same position as Boehner – held hostage by the Freedom Caucus. In his meeting with the group, moreover, he reportedly softened his demand to eliminate a House procedure in which any member can call for a vote to “vacate the chair,” or kick the speaker out of his job. And he also reportedly promised to devolve more power to the rank and file, which is precisely the opposite of what needs to happen.
If Ryan takes the job, he will likely enjoy a honeymoon period. But the fundamental problem – no functional GOP majority – will remain. Ryan believes government should be small. Much of his caucus believes it should be thwarted.
Sounds like doom to me.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.