Can Paul Ryan Turn Around the Party of No?
Policy + Politics

Can Paul Ryan Turn Around the Party of No?

© Gary Cameron / Reuters

Newly ensconced House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) complained over the weekend that the GOP essentially lacks “the vision thing.” He warned that his party would be permanently consigned to second-place status in presidential politics unless it somehow elevates its game on public policy and demonstrates that it can lead.

Ryan was highly reluctant to succeed John Boehner as speaker because the job is arguably one of the toughest and most frustrating position in Washington, with a small gaggle of about 40 right-wing conservatives frequently calling the tune. But since taking the gavel from Boehner last Thursday, he has sharply criticized the GOP controlled House, saying that it is “broken” and dysfunctional. And during high profile appearances on all five major Sunday news programs, Ryan complained that the Republicans have been consumed by “tactics” at the expense of visionary leadership.

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“We’ve been too timid on policy, we’ve been too timid on vision – we have none,” Ryan said during an interview on Fox News Sunday. “We have to have a vision and offer an alternative to this country so that they can see that if we get the chance to lead, if we get the presidency and if we keep Congress, this is what it will look like; this is how we’ll fix the problems working families are facing.”

Ryan, the former chair of the House Budget and Ways and Means Committees and a highly regarded conservative thinker, promised to put forth a “bold,” detailed policy agenda for the GOP that could be used by Republican presidential candidates heading into the teeth of the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I think it’s very important that we are a successful opposition party,” he said. “If we don’t like the direction the country is headed, not only do we use the tools that we have to be a successful opposition party, but we have to be…a proposition party.”

That includes coming up with creative ways to overhaul the tax code, replace the Affordable Care Act, address the “root causes” of poverty and provide sustained economic growth.

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“This is where we have fallen down, and I think this is what unifies the Republicans – which is to show the country how we would do things differently,” he added.

Although it may a while before we get a full look at the new Ryan policy doctrine, he offered a few insights to his views during his talk show appearances:

Immigration Reform

Immigration reform is off the table as long as President Obama is in office. Ryan made good on his pledge to conservatives to slam the door on bringing any immigration bill to the floor until well after the 2016 presidential election.

“Specifically, on this issue, you cannot trust this president,” Ryan told CNN, noting that Obama sought to end-run Congress last year by issuing two executive orders designed to give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants and their children.

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Ryan was criticized by conservatives for previously backing immigration reforms, but now is firmly in the conservative camp in opposing any action as long as a Democrat is in the White House. With Obama’s executive orders hopelessly tied up in court by conservatives, all avenues to reform have been cut off.

No Government Shutdowns

Another government shutdown is not in the cards under his watch. Even with the two-year budget agreement approved last week, Congress still must write specific appropriations bills by early December in order to divvy up the funds over the coming fiscal year. Ryan refused to side with the Freedom Caucus for a rider to a spending bill that would defund Planned Parenthood because of a controversy over its sale of aborted fetal body parts. Knowing that Obama would veto that bill, Ryan said, “Being an effective opposition party means being honest with people up front about what it is you can and cannot achieve.”

The Hastert Rule

The Hastert Rule is no longer written in stone. While issues such as immigration would require majority consent of the House Republican Conference before the leadership could move ahead, Ryan may have to move ahead on others by striking a compromise with the Democrats – just as Boehner did last week in winning passage of the new budget.

Under the so-called “Hastert Rule” – an informal House governing principle used by the Republicans since the mid-1990s and named for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) – the speaker does not allow a floor vote on a bill unless a majority of the majority party supports the measure.

Related: Boehner Ready to Exit a Historically Feeble Congress

Family First

Ryan made it clear before seeking the speakership that he would not allow it to interfere with his weekends home in Janesville, Wisconsin with his wife and three young children. But the conservative Republican said he would not support paid family leave legislation favored by President Obama and the Democrats because it would constitute a new entitlement program that would add to the debt.

John Roberts, the Fox News Sunday host, noted that many Americans would like to see Ryan make it a priority to pass a paid family leave bill. But Ryan brushed him back, saying, “I don’t think people asked me to be Speaker so that I can take more money from hardworking taxpayers to create some new federal entitlement,” he said. “But I think people want to have members of Congress who represent them, that are like them.”

A House Undivided

He views himself as a potential unifying force – one who not only can unite the GOP conference but who can occasionally find common ground with the Democrats. “If I pick up where John Boehner left off, then I think we won’t be successful,” he said during an interview on ABC’s This Week. “That’s not a discredit to John Boehner, that’s just a discredit to the way the job has been done.”

“And so I think this job has to be done differently. And that's why I say it's a new day. We're starting over. We have a clean slate. And we're going to go on offense.”