It has been 32 years since a Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives has truly left office of his – or her – own volition. Paul Ryan has not been forced to resign like Jim Wright following a scandal or John Boehner following repeated defections by his own troops. He wasn’t booted out by his own party, like Newt Gingrich, or ousted by an election that ceded power to the opposition like Tom Foley, Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi. Ryan just quit.
Ryan’s decision brings to a close a brief speakership marked by spectacular underachievement. Like Boehner, Ryan proved incapable of effectively managing his deeply riven Republican Conference. Even granted the limited legislative objectives of the modern Republican Party, Ryan has been unable to summon up the political astuteness to perform the most basic function of the congressional majority: to govern.
Only by fashioning the same short-lived coalitions with Democrats as Boehner has Ryan avoided disastrous shutdowns that so delight a substantial portion of his Conference. By stepping up to his obligation to fund the government and prevent the disruption and political damage that inevitably follows shutdowns, Ryan also inflamed the Freedom Caucus/Tea Party faction whose election elevated the GOP to the majority and which now intimidates its Conference colleagues and their leaders.
True, Ryan was able to secure his supreme if misguided goal, a costly tax cut that disproportionately benefits corporations and the wealthy. Together with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Ryan shredded conservatives’ so-called commitment to reducing the deficit, not only by pushing through his $1.5 trillion tax cut, but also by bulldozing through Congress an Omnibus spending bill that together added over $1.4 trillion to the Nation’s red ink.
With all due respect to Speaker Ryan’s often touted legislative skills, reducing the taxes of the super-rich and corporations while providing meager cuts to regular Americans (Ryan bragged of a constituent who was receiving $1.50 a month from the tax cut) is not exactly legislative legerdemain. Any demagogue can cut taxes, especially if he doesn’t care about the impact on the deficit.
Moreover, Ryan admitted that his real goal was to inflate the deficit so as to create a rationale for cutting programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which benefit tens of millions of Americans, mostly poor, elderly and disabled. Having abandoned the effective deficit-reducing mechanism of the Pay As You Go requirement instituted by Democrats, Ryan instead promoted a “Balanced Budget Amendment” whose underlying principle he has no ability or interest in honoring.
But Ryan’s failures go even deeper than these examples of his hypocrisy on the question of economic fairness, spending control and deficit reduction. In slavishly capitulating to the erratic, unprincipled and dangerous lurchings of Donald Trump, Ryan has undermined the stature of the institution he was solemnly charged with leading. For nearly a half-century, Democrats and Republicans alike in the House have fought to reassert the role of the Congress as a separate and co-equal branch of government, developing its own legislative initiatives, not simply accepting the demands of an Imperial presidency. Congress, since the 1970s, has engaged in vigorous oversight of the Executive Branch, demanding answers about the spending of funds and the scrutiny of programs that originate with the Congress, and which the President has the responsibility to manage.
Under Ryan, the House has utterly failed in that mission, largely reverting to its onetime status as the pitiful “sapless branch” of government decried by Sen. Joseph Clark (D-PA) a half century ago. Ryan not only weakened Congress by obsequiously deferring to a president who demonstrates contempt for his party’s members, but he severely damaged the honor of the House itself by abandoning the regular legislative order, neutering members of policy committees on both sides of the aisle, restricting opportunities to offer amendments on the floor, and ignoring the pleas of overwhelming majorities of Americans of all ideologies to address issues like gun policy and immigration.
Such a harsh assessment of Ryan’s failed career as speaker undoubtedly will strike some as unkind; doesn’t he deserve compassion, even sympathy, for having to endure the constant pressures, threats and obstructionism from the far-Right Freedom Caucus from which he himself emerged?
Absolutely not. Speakers don’t have the luxury to offer excuses. They play the hand they are dealt as best they can. Nancy Pelosi had to cater to conservatives in her Caucus and deal with an unpopular president whose reckless behavior had driven the nation into two wars as well as an historic recession. John Boehner inherited the speakership by virtue of an extremist minority that showed him little deference and forced him to cut deals with Pelosi and Barack Obama to ensure the continued functioning of the institution he was charged with running.
Ryan has shown no courage and minimal skill. Despite an unearned reputation as a policy wonk, he has little to show for either creative or innovative legislation; in fact, he has little to show for any legislation at all, which may well have been the goal.
He leaves behind a president who adds another trophy of the Washington elite to his wall. He leaves behind a House that has lost institutional capability and public respect. He leaves behind a Conference that is divided and ineffective, one that may well spend much of the rest of this year deciding who might next inherit the job Ryan leaves, or the job he perhaps feared: Minority Leader. From the standpoint of those who care about a functioning, independent House, Paul Ryan has made one sound decision: he quit.
John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published by John’s blog, Domeocracy.