When Paul Ryan was convinced to take over the House speakership from retiring John Boehner, it raised two big questions. First, why on earth would he want the job of trying to manage the fractious and uncivil chamber in the first place? And, why should he be expected to have any more success at it than his predecessor did?
On Wednesday, Ryan took one of his first high-profile steps toward instilling a little discipline in the chamber, before promptly backing down in the face of anger from members.
A defining characteristic of the John Boehner era was that that while floor votes almost always had ostensible time limits attached to them, they were almost utterly without meaning. A vote would be held open as long as House leadership felt like it, leading to 15-minute votes taking two and three times as long.
It was a practice that, by all accounts, annoyed Ryan. And he recently warned the members of the House that he would no longer abet members being late to votes by holding them open. On Wednesday, he made good on his threat.
The House was scheduled to vote on a bill that would toughen oversight on the Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration, along with other world powers, struck over the summer. The bill was brought to the floor and a 15-minute vote was declared. And when the 15 minutes was up, the vote was closed.
The problem was that 137 members of the House, from both parties, hadn’t made it to the floor on time. The bill had the votes to pass, 191-106, but that wasn’t the point. The Iran deal is highly charged politically, all the more so because of the detention and return of 10 U.S. sailors by the Iranian Navy overnight Tuesday. Members were anxious to be on the record voting on the bill, and weren’t at all happy when they sauntered onto the floor after the 15 minutes had expired and were informed that the voting had concluded.
As members began complaining, Ryan quickly conferred with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Democratic leaders. Not long afterward, McCarthy requested unanimous consent to “vacate” the results of the vote, with a promise that the vote would be rescheduled for later this month, in order to give all members a chance to go on the record.
Ryan may yet be able to whip the chamber into shape, but in backing down on Wednesday, he gave up what would have been a very instructive lesson in, if not civility, at least punctuality.