Paul Ryan’s Congress: What to Expect

Liam Murphy, JHU:

Paul Ryan’s recent replacement of John Boehner as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has been fraught with speculation. To the casual observer, it would appear the former Republican vice presidential nominee has been laying low since losing alongside Mitt Romney in 2012. Nevertheless, Mr. Ryan came out of a messy nomination process as the only man with the conservative chops and establishment credentials to lead a divided Republican caucus, thereby reminding the public of his political capabilities. But even as the consensus choice for the speakership, Mr. Ryan has already witnessed the unique pressures of his new job, as well as the degree to which he will operate in perpetual comparison to his controversial predecessor. In comparing him to former Speaker John Boehner, it becomes clear not only that Paul Ryan is a politician of a different kind, but that his speakership could represent a departure from the Boehner era in terms of both tone and productivity.

In the short period that Paul Ryan has served as speaker, pundits and his fellow congressional colleagues have been quick to note the differences between him and Boehner. Certainly, it is important to recognize that on many levels Ryan and Boehner are legislators cut from the same conservative cloth. In both of their tenures in the House, the two congressmen have voted in lockstep with conservative Republicans on social policy, climate change and immigration reform. In fact, dedication to conservative principles and a willingness to compromise were the very characteristics that cemented John Boehner’s bid for the speakership in 2011, not unlike Ryan’s recent rise. Yet despite their similarities in terms of voting record and apparent pragmatism, it appears Paul Ryan’s approach to the speakership will be markedly different than that of his predecessor.

A key policy area under Mr. Ryan’s leadership is expected to be tax reform. Known for his wonkiness, Ryan pushed for a simplified, revenue-neutral tax plan during his nine-month tenure as Ways and Means chairman. However, his affinity for tax reform never translated into substantive policy changes. It would be fair to assume that as speaker, Ryan will have the clout to pursue such reforms. In fact, the recent budget deal—John Boehner’s parting gift, if you will—may provide Ryan with the legislative flexibility to do exactly that.

Not everyone is sold on the notion that a Paul Ryan speakership will translate into significant overhauls in the tax code, however. There are some who believe Ryan’s assumption of the speakership will actually hinder his ability to push legislation, such as tax reform, through a divided Congress. To speculate on Ryan’s productivity as speaker is difficult, especially with the possibility of turnover in the 2016 elections. It is clear though, that the Ryan era will be characterized by an unstable persistence that was largely absent during Boehner’s tenure.

Many pundits believe that Paul Ryan’s legislative agenda, like Boehner’s, will be mired in the factiousness of his party and the pervasiveness of special interest groups. Yet these areas are also those in which Ryan and his staff will look to redefine the role of speakership and, in turn, inspire greater cohesion among his colleagues. In terms of party factions, Ryan has already expressed his desire to return some of the power of the speakership to the committees, as well as his intention to form a Republican advisory council comprised of members of each of the party’s competing caucuses, namely the anti-establishment Freedom Caucus, the moderate Tuesday Group and the more traditionally conservative Republican Study Committee. These moves could prove disastrous, as extending the influence of certain groups, such as the Freedom Caucus, may ultimately derail Congress even further. However, the degree to which Ryan appears to be pursuing party cohesion and a streamlining of the legislative process is a promising sign that the new House leadership may ultimately abandon the schoolyard tactics of the Boehner era. As Ryan recently remarked, “I was not elected dictator of the House. I was elected speaker of the House. And that means we do it in a bottom up approach.” Only time will tell whether this hands-off leadership approach inspires cohesion or chaos.

Paul Ryan’s relationship with and perception of special interests is another important way he differs from John Boehner. Whereas Boehner’s time as speaker was known for lengthy schmoozing sessions with K Street big wigs, it is possible that under Ryan’s leadership lobbyists will play a far less significant role in major policy discussions. Interestingly, however, tax reform is an area of particular importance to lobbyists, so cooperation with special interests may well be an inevitable consequence of Paul Ryan’s new job. Nevertheless, Ryan’s track record as chairman of Ways and Means suggests that as speaker his relationships with special interest power brokers will remain policy-focused and largely void of the personal intimacy that characterized John Boehner’s relationship with K Street. Conversely, the recent hiring of Dave Hoppe, a former Senate staffer and lobbyist, as chief of staff could indicate that Ryan is aware of the new demands of his office and the necessity of appeasing special interests. Either way, it is clear that Paul Ryan views this dimension of Congress differently than his predecessor, and thus it will be an important topic to consider as his speakership continues.

Only a few weeks into his new gig, Paul Ryan is still adjusting. With the new role, Mr. Ryan now has new priorities. He has to channel his energies not toward debating the minutiae of legislation, but toward uniting a seemingly broken party and prodding a Democratic president whose interest in bipartisan cooperation is quickly fading. Ryan also has adjustments of a different kind to make, such as detoxifying his new office—John Boehner is known to be quite the smoker. In fact, the former speaker’s smoking habits have long been a complaint of Mr. Ryan. He was once quoted in an interview with TIME, “I try to sit as far away from him as I can in meetings that I know are going to be stressful. I just hate getting that smell in my clothes.” As he settles into the post vacated by Mr. Boehner, it appears Paul Ryan intends to distance himself from his predecessor for reasons other than simply avoiding smokey clothes. If his young tenure is any indication, the new speaker will work to increase cohesion within his caucus, prioritize policy over special interests, and advocate a conservative agenda. All of these tasks are tall, but already Mr. Ryan seems better suited than Mr. Boehner to accomplish them.

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