House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has gotten off to a strong start with the far-right conservatives in his conference who drove former Speaker John Boehner from office and blocked Boehner’s heir apparent from claiming the job.
Ryan has conferred repeatedly with the 40 or so members of the Freedom Caucus to address their demands for overhauling the rules of the House to strip committee chairmen of some of their powers and give rank and file members greater clout to shape legislation and set the political agenda.
While Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and other key members of the Freedom Caucus say the verdict is still out on Ryan, they praised him for opening up the $325 billion multi-year highway bill to two days of floor debate and amendments. And they extracted concessions from Ryan on reconstituting the powerful GOP Steering Committee, which chooses new committee chairmen and sets important policy.
Yet barely two weeks after Ryan was overwhelmingly elected Speaker with the help of the Freedom Caucus, the far-right lawmakers already are planning to test the Wisconsin Republican’s mettle as a leader. And for all of Ryan’s confidence that he can steer the House in a way Boehner never could, he may be headed for similar destructive showdowns with his party’s far right.
That’s because Freedom Caucus members not only want to change the rules of the game, they will be insisting on calling the tune in setting up the legislative calendar during the first 100 days of 2016. Jordan, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho and other ringleaders of the Freedom Caucus have begun drafting a “Contract With America II” document to set a far reaching and highly ambitious conservative agenda for Ryan and the rest of the Republican conference to follow after the election, according to Bloomberg Business.
The document is being modeled after the original “Contract With America” that Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and other minority Republican House members drafted and signed as a campaign tool shortly before the historic 1994 congressional elections. The Contract With America contained both a series of changes in how the House did business and a dozen or more specific major legislative proposals. Those included a balanced budget provision, welfare reform, changes to the criminal justice and sentencing laws, family tax credits and other federal tax provisions.
As Bloomberg reported late last week, the plan was conceived as a way to “hold new Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders to account,” beyond the concessions Ryan already has made on the way the House must operate. Moreover, Jordan and the others apparently are determined to demonstrate that they can do more than attack the institution and try to shut down the government.
But in taking this tack, the far right Republicans in effect are usurping the new Speaker’s prerogatives and authority to set the legislative calendar and determine the best timing for major legislation. They are also creating a new conservative litmus test for the roughly 200 other GOP House members who don’t see eye to eye with the Freedom Caucus on many key issues and could encounter problems winning reelection in swing districts where far-right proposals may not play well.
“In some ways it becomes a more vexing challenge for Ryan because — as we know — the Freedom Caucus members took a lot of flak from their own right when they supported Paul Ryan,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview Monday. “And now they’ve got to show not only their Tea Party constituents back home but the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham that they’re not turncoats, they’re not squishy.”
A quick review of the tentative planks of the new contract illustrates the dilemma that some Republicans might face in having to decide whether or not to sign the contract:
- Overhauling Social Security, Medicare and other politically sensitive entitlement programs
- Repealing the estate tax
- Trying once again to repeal the Affordable Care Act
- Further boosting defense spending so that the Pentagon has sufficient funding to wage two major wars in different parts of the world without having to make offsetting cuts elsewhere
- Cutting U.S. dependency on foreign oil by 20 percent by 2025
- Closing corporate tax loopholes
- Cutting the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent
- Slashing federal regulations and red tape by 20 percent
- Balancing the budget
- Denying federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other organizations involved with performing abortions.
Ryan, the former Budget and House Ways and Means Committee, has long championed many of these proposals, including tax reform and changes to major entitlement programs. But as is so often the case in politics, timing is everything. And Ryan must coordinate House legislative action with Senate GOP leaders and the GOP presidential candidates.
What’s more, Ryan and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), the newly elected chair of the Ways and Means Committee, have in mind a coordinated effort to pass the first major reform of the federal tax code in decades. The Freedom Caucus agenda is likely to conflict with what the new speaker and Ways and Means Committee chief have in mind for both taxes and entitlements.
And, as Ornstein noted, there may be other highly controversial measures that the Freedom Caucus decides to add to its agenda, including national security and immigration provisions in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Some conservatives already are clamoring to block spending to bring any Syrian refugees to the U.S.
“I’m just not sure how Ryan can navigate all of that without a lot of pain,” Ornstein said.