Crash Course: Leadership Novice Ryan Takes the Reins

By Shawn Zeller, CQ Roll Call

Paul D. Ryan has taken the path less traveled. And that could make all the difference.

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Ryan leaves his office on Oct. 23.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The policy wonk from Wisconsin became a Republican  star by writing multiple budget resolutions, cutting a spending deal with Democrats and mounting a respectable vice presidential bid. In the vacuum that followed John A. Boehner’s decision to resign, Ryan was courted, pressured, then drafted to become speaker.

But Ryan has a lot to learn about his new position, which he is set to take over in early November. Assuming his path remains smooth, he’ll be the first member in the modern House to move directly to the speakership without having ever served previously in a leadership role. That makes him a relative novice in the glad-handing and behind-the-scenes member management tasks at the heart of a speaker’s duties. His ideological pedigree could help him lay out the kind of vision House leaders have been lacking in recent years, but he will need to develop new skills to harness this brief moment of apparent GOP unity and prevent the party from slipping back into the crippling infighting that marked the end of Boehner’s tenure.

Clearly, most Republicans think Ryan is the man for the job and can quickly adapt. But there are trouble signs, starting with Ryan’s reluctance to take a job that, everyone agrees, cannot be done at half speed.

“Congress is 535 ants floating on a log down the Potomac and each one thinks he’s the captain,” says Jack Kingston, a former House Republican from Georgia who served as conference vice chairman when J. Dennis Hastert was speaker. “Everyone sees it from their own district, belief system or filter. When you, as speaker, go on the floor for a vote, you are mobbed. Democrats and Republicans are telling you this is what you need to do about the peanut program, or energy policy, or this is what’s happening in Kazakhstan.”

It’s a job for someone who’s fully invested and can multitask. But following the defeat of his vice presidential bid in 2012, Ryan sounded more like someone who was losing his interest in politics. After his and Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, he returned to the Capitol more reserved and more pessimistic about Republicans’ ability to persuade the country as a whole of the virtue in conservative ideas.

He said he never would run for speaker, that he knew himself and where he was happiest — making policy — and that he intended to leave Congress within a decade. Despite the open 2016 field, he made clear he would not be running for president. Republicans had to beg him to run for speaker.

“In modern times, I can’t think of anything like this happening where someone who became speaker was this reluctant to take the job,” says Matthew Green, a Catholic University politics professor who’s written a book on the speakership. Normally, there are “people who strive for it, who take years to carefully work toward that goal.” Ryan’s reluctance “could hurt him in that members might think he doesn’t have his heart in it.”

Getting All In

If Ryan wants to do the job right, finding time for his family, as he has insisted is a precondition for taking the job, isn’t going to be easy.

Equally difficult will be implementing his plan to delegate more fundraising travel to surrogates. Asked how he would have felt if Hastert had told him he wanted to cut back on his fundraising, former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III responded: “It wouldn’t have helped.” Ryan, by virtue of his vice presidential bid three years ago, has a national persona. It’s hard to see how potential surrogates like Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California or GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana could fill the role as well as the speaker.

Then there’s Ryan’s insistence that, as a condition of his campaign, Republicans put aside their disagreements and unite for the good of the party. It sounds naive, given conservatives’ impatience over the pace of progress in Washington.

When Ryan won the support of a supermajority of the rebellious House Freedom Caucus — falling just short of a formal endorsement — both sides acknowledged they’d come to no agreement on Ryan’s demand that they put aside their most potent weapon, the motion to vacate the speaker’s chair that helped to bring down Boehner. Nor did they find common ground on demands the new speaker adopt a more open process where rank-and-file members would choose committee chairmen and play a greater role in determining which bills and amendments go to the floor.

The 40 or so Freedom Caucus members, almost all of whom come from staunchly conservative districts, say they continue to feel pressure from their constituents to push the party to the right. And if need be, they will oppose Ryan.

“We want him to be successful, but we also want to make sure he understands this is not about crowning a king,” says Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho. “This is about working together and making sure every member feels like they’re empowered.”

The tea party groups outside Congress are openly skeptical. “It’s extremely hard work to get the conference together,” says Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks. “If he wants to spend a lot of time with his kids, it will be hard to be speaker and negotiate with Obama at 3 a.m. over a spending bill. I want someone who wants to do that job.”

Indeed, if Ryan is making a honeymoon a precondition, he’d better think again, says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “He should be reluctant. He now has a huge position at Ways and Means and little downside. There are very few people shooting at him,” Gingrich says. “Within 72 hours of being speaker someone will start shooting at him.”

Robert L. Livingston, the former House Appropriations chairman who had to give up the GOP nomination for speaker in 1998, figures there is nothing Ryan could do now to ensure a more acquiescent GOP caucus. The conservatives “personalized it with Boehner and presumably will personalize it with any person that succeeds Boehner,” he says.

Idea Generator

For the vast majority of Republicans on the Hill, their hope is that Ryan, through his experience selling a budget, has the ideas and the listening and persuasion skills to restore the speakership to the prestige it enjoyed during Gingrich’s first years in office or the stretch under Democrat Nancy Pelosi in 2009 and 2010, when she shepherded President Barack Obama’s health care and Wall Street regulation bills to enactment.

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Ryan could provide what Republicans have lacked since Gingrich: a conservative idea generator. But as Budget chairman, he never had to implement his ideas. It was a role he was trying to learn by moving over to Ways and Means this year. Boehner had promised to allow him to pursue a major overhaul of the tax code, the first since 1986.

If Ryan can take his budgets, with their proposed changes to entitlement and anti-poverty programs, and tie them into an overarching agenda with a tax plan, it could help him placate the far right. “Members need results,” says former Rep. Christopher Cox, who chaired the Republican Policy Committee from 1995 to 2005. “An aggressive policy agenda that’s on the floor four or five days a week will be a tonic for the restless members of the conference.”

Ryan became Budget chairman in 2011 and over the course of the next three years wrote conservative budgets that stretched the bounds of what some of his colleagues considered politically wise. Borrowing from the Roadmap for America’s Future legislation he had composed as a member of the minority, he proposed converting Medicare from an entitlement to a voucher-based premium support program, cutting $4 trillion in spending and simplifying the tax code.

Still, all that was more red meat for the base than realistic policy proposal. Democrats controlled the Senate and Obama was in the White House. The fact that House Republicans approved Ryan’s far-reaching proposals in each of his four years as chairman was a testament to his salesmanship. It was during this effort that he developed a rapport with the restive “young guns,” many Gen-Xers like himself, who restored the Republicans to the majority in the tea party wave of 2010.

In 2013, Ryan cut his first deal with Democrats, teaming with Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington. Their agreement raised limits on discretionary spending in fiscal 2014 and 2015 — caps that Congress had imposed in the 2011 sequestration deal — by finding new cuts in mandatory programs and increasing fees. To hard-core conservatives who see the 2011 sequestration as Republicans’ biggest victory in the Obama years, it wasn’t a good deal. Sixty-two of them, many now Freedom Caucus members, voted no.

During his short stint at Ways and Means, Ryan’s biggest success was passage in June of a bill to give Obama fast-track trade negotiating authority, which will enable him to complete a pending deal with Asian and Pacific nations. Again, much of the conservative wing of the Republican caucus voted no. And Congress is still waiting for Ryan’s promised tax bill.

It’s not yet certain that Ryan can make the transition from policy writer to implementer.

Indeed, the skills one needs to develop and package policy — a willingness to delve into the minutiae of the budget, entitlements, and welfare programs — are not the same as those a speaker needs, such as the ability to grasp the political consequences of policy, negotiate among factions and with the opposition, mediate disputes, divvy out favors and sometimes even punish recalcitrant members.

Dual Nature

At the same time as he learns to live with the Freedom Caucus, Ryan will have to figure out a way to keep the government open, pass spending bills and raise the debt ceiling without losing their support. “When you are the speaker, you have a strange dual nature, one as representative of your caucus, and running against that, the institutional requirements that not everybody in the caucus accepts,” says Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. “A speaker is torn between those two.”

Ryan will need to convince conservatives to accept something less than the total victory they want on issues ranging from the repeal of Obama’s health care law to the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and to pass compromise measures like the Murray-Ryan budget he shepherded in 2013. But this time, he’ll have to do it without Boehner providing cover.

Most of all, he needs that overarching agenda, says J.C. Watts Jr., an Oklahoma Republican who served as conference chairman under Hastert. “It’s not good enough to tell members that things would be worse if Democrats were in charge,” he says. “If you have smart people who have a plan, then you have a chance for success.”

John Shadegg, who represented the Phoenix area for eight terms ending in 2010 and served for a time as Hastert’s chief deputy whip, was once one of the House’s rebels. He was stripped of his whip job in 2006 when he voted against a closed rule governing debate of a funding bill to protest the prohibition on amendments, and he sympathizes with members of the House Freedom Caucus who were punished by Boehner for similar defiance toward party leadership. Ryan would be wise, he says, to exercise more leniency.

Indeed, as Shadegg tells it, the decision to view votes on rules — which govern how bills are considered on the floor — as a test of party loyalty only emerged under Hastert. Prior to that, disaffected members of the majority would occasionally vote against rules in order to make their feelings known, and the result, at least during Gingrich’s time, were caucus meetings that usually led to some resolution. Harsh punishments, such as those Boehner imposed by stripping recalcitrant Republicans of committee assignments, “don’t work because everyone has his own voting card,” says Shadegg. “They start talking and then you have more trouble. Showing respect for opposing views is a better way to rule.”

Shadegg says Ryan needs to try harder than Boehner to give conservatives victories they can hang their hats on. An example, he notes, was the fight last winter over funding for Obama’s plan to allow more illegal immigrants to remain, legally, in the country. Republicans tried to strip funding for the initiative in the Homeland Security spending bill for fiscal 2015. The House passed a bill to do that, but the Senate could not. Democrats filibustered. Even if they hadn’t, Obama had pledged a veto.

Shadegg suggests that Ryan needs to coordinate more closely with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans could have given conservatives some other victory by, for instance, refusing to confirm Loretta Lynch as attorney general. Lynch said she supported Obama’s immigration action, but still won confirmation a month after Boehner submitted to Obama on Homeland Security’s funding.

Kingston suggests another difficult objective: toning down unrealistic ambitions.

In the reconciliation bill passed Oct. 23 by the House, Republicans included a broad range of changes to the health care law that are unacceptable to Obama, along with the defunding of abortion provider Planned Parenthood. It will be vetoed. But what, Kingston wonders, if the bill focused on simply repealing the medical device tax, for which there is bipartisan support.

“The good news for Ryan is that he’s running into a burning house and they know it,” Kingston says. “Anything that the Freedom Caucus sees as better than what Boehner would have done is a win for Ryan, and for the Freedom Caucus.”

To get some wins like that, though, Ryan will have to tune out the conservative talking heads and interest groups for which anything less than total victory is a capitulation. Already, groups like the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks are complaining that the reconciliation bill in the works fails to fully repeal Obamacare, a goal Republicans have sought, fruitlessly, for the last five years.

Ryan may need to dispense with Boehner’s insistence that most bills move only with the support of 218 Republicans, an expansion of Hastert’s rule requiring only a majority of the majority, which currently sits at 247 seats.

“I think leaders can get in trouble doing too many side deals,” says Kingston. “The more important thing is to set out rules and use them the same for the moderates as for the Freedom Caucus. With that 247, you can let people get off the farm.”

Indeed, the size of the Republican caucus — the largest since 1929 — gives Ryan freedom to allow members to vote their conscience and still pass important bills. But he can’t allow those who find themselves regularly voting no to get angry enough to topple him.

There’s no guarantee they won’t try, and a policy wonk’s defense might not be enough.

“It’s a raucous caucus,” Davis says. “You have members who answer to constituents who take their cues from talk radio and Fox News, not the Congressional Budget Office.”

Emma Dumain, Matt Fuller and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.