House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) arguably has one of the most thankless jobs in politics, and it’s likely to get a lot worse very soon.
Saddled with an unruly GOP majority in the House comprised largely of conservative malcontents eager to unseat Democrat Hillary Clinton if she is elected president and furious with Ryan for refusing to support Republican nominee Donald Trump, Ryan faces legislative chaos and gridlock assuming his party retains control of the House and once again picks him to lead.
Ryan, an inveterate conservative policy wonk, spent the better part of the past year touting a “Better Way” laundry list of policies he intends to promote after the election -- from major tax cuts and an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act to regulatory reform and national security measures.
“With this plan, everyone in our country—the anxious and the eager, the Old America and the New America — can unite and build a confident America,” Ryan said of the House GOP agenda in late June. A Hamlet-like politician who wavered before reluctantly agreeing to replace retiring House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio in October 2015, Ryan has counseled rank and file Republicans to fight to preserve their majority as a check on a new Clinton presidency.
However, his once towering hopes to be at the forefront of a sea change in federal policy have been pretty much washed away by an unprecedented and troubling presidential campaign in which Trump’s scorched earth attacks on Ryan and other GOP leaders – not to mention women, Hispanics, blacks, Muslims, immigrants and the news media – threaten to take down their party.
If the Democrats succeed in winning the White House, taking back control of the Senate and substantially whittling down the House GOP’s current 246 to 186 seat majority, then the one-time chair of the Budget and Ways and Means Committee will have little choice but to try to do business with Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Clinton herself.
Without Democratic help in the future, Ryan and his leadership lieutenants will have trouble amassing 218 votes – a bare majority of the overall House – for any major initiative.
“So this is really a moment of decision for Paul Ryan,” said William Galston, a government policy expert with the Brookings Institution. “Does he want to be part of governing this country or does he want to be the leader of an obdurate minority in this country that simply wants to resist.”
“He has to decide whether he wants to rely on a minority of Democratic votes along with a majority of Republican votes,” he added in an interview on Thursday. “If he insists on getting to 218 votes based on Republicans alone, then his next year is going to be a lot like his last year – only worse.”
The Republicans currently hold a 246 to 186 seat majority, with three vacancies. The Democrats would need an act of God to overcome that advantage, especially in many gerrymandered districts that were hard-wired for the conservative incumbents. University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” political blog is projecting a 10 to 15 seat gain for the Democrats. That would fall short of the 30 net seats they need to take over but enough to command the attention of Ryan and the rest of the GOP leadership.
Yet consorting with the enemy like that – even when it comes to critical, must-pass legislation like annual appropriations bills and raising the debt ceiling -- would be a high crime and misdemeanor in the eyes of right-wing Freedom Caucus members. They are furious that Clinton escaped their clutches during her 11-hour testimony last October on her mishandling of State Department emails and her role in the run-up to and aftermath of the terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
What’s more, there are signs the House GOP conference will emerge from the election even more conservative than it is now. That’s because many of the most vulnerable Republicans are relatively moderate, while members of the Freedom Caucus for the most part are in good shape. This will serve to strengthen the hand of the 15 or so hardliners in the caucus, Georgetown University political science professor Michele Swers recently told Vox.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the youthful chair of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made it clear this week how he intends to spend the next two years after the election: investigating every shred of evidence against Clinton and her allies that emerged from the release of State Department emails and a trove of hacked Democratic party and campaign emails that were posted by WikiLeaks.
Chaffetz told The Washington Post, “It’s a target rich environment” and that even before the new president and the new Congress take office in January, “We’ve got two years of material already lined up.”
Ryan’s office issued a statement to the newspaper saying the Speaker supports investigative efforts “following where the evidence leads.” Such a tactic – essentially reprising a strategy of relentless investigations of the president and government agencies over the past several years – could once again lead the Republicans down a blind alley regarding expanding their political appeal and eventually taking back control of the White House.
If Ryan is serious about putting his stamp on meaningful legislation, he may have to find a way to accommodate a new Democratic president and revitalized Democratic Party on Capitol Hill.
“I wouldn't want to be Paul Ryan,” Sabato said in an email. “A sizable portion of his caucus will want to oppose almost anything Clinton sends to the Hill. Apparently, some members want to punish Ryan for not backing Trump enthusiastically.
Indeed, Trump denounced Ryan as "Our very weak and ineffective leader” who lacks the support of many in his own conference. Trump delivered that salvo after Ryan withdrew his support of the billionaire businessman and former reality TV host earlier this month following the release of the 11-year old NBC “Access Hollywood” videotape showing Trump bragging about using his star power to sexually assault or grope women.
Breitbart, the alt-right news website headed by Stephen K. Bannon -- who doubles as Trump’s campaign chairman -- published a lengthy article over the weekend with the headline, “He’s With Her.” The piece denounces Ryan for being in league with Clinton and helping her to defeat Trump.
“Both Clinton and Ryan have said that they see themselves as representatives not only for American citizens but also for foreign nationals and foreign interests,” the analysis complained. “This view that the needs of foreign citizens are equal to the needs of American citizens reflects the belief that Americans are only part of many interest groups that a lawmaker ought to consider when crafting legislation—even as he or she negotiates with other countries, which always put their citizens first.”