Paul Ryan has an offer for his congressional colleagues.
He wants them to unanimously unite behind his bid to be speaker of the House. They’ll have to do away with the Motion to Vacate the Chair, a check on the speaker’s power that was originally devised by Thomas Jefferson. The unruly Freedom Caucus must get in line. He doesn’t want to work weekends.
In return, Ryan furnishes a vague promise not to ram through any more controversial immigration reform measures.
For conservatives, that’s a bit of a tough sell. Start with the fact that the immigration concession isn’t particularly meaningful. Even if Ryan pushed immigration reform as mightily as he could, it probably wouldn’t get through his caucus. A jalopy in Maine on a winter morning is less of a non-starter than amnesty among conservatives. And with the ferociously anti-immigrant Donald Trump looking like a lock for the presidential nomination, expect Republican populists to only grow bolder. This issue isn’t going away, regardless of who the next speaker is.
Now consider the privileges that Ryan is demanding for himself. As Thomas Massie noted on CNN yesterday, if a candidate for CEO called for the total support of the company board, demanded that they jettison their mechanism for removing him, and refused to work on Saturdays and Sundays, he would have been laughed out of contention. Yet this is what Ryan proposes. It’s understandable given his lack of desire for the gavel. But this is the third most powerful job in the United States of America. The candidate must conform to the greatness of the position, not the other way around.
Some have speculated that a Ryan speakership would be good for fiscal conservatism. There’s certainly a libertarian strain to Ryan’s thought and his knack for comprehending budgets is unsurpassed in the House. But even the most diehard of Ryan acolytes will admit that his trademark legislation—those line item-slashing, entitlement-overhauling budget roadmaps—increasingly came to resemble political documents rather than fiscal ones. Their later iterations contained fuzzy math, assuming an unlikely repeal of Obamacare and relying on suspect revenue projections.
There’s also the matter of Ryan’s most shameful moment: his negotiation of the Ryan-Murray budget compromise that yanked the teeth out of the sequester. Congressional Republicans, desperate to avoid the circus of another fiscal showdown back in 2013, dispatched Ryan to negotiate with Democratic Senator Patty Murray. The resulting budget canceled the next year’s sequestration cuts in favor of vague promises to prune spending in the distant future. And because Democrats can’t go for a jog without trying to raise someone’s taxes, Ryan-Murray also imposed a hike in airline fees.
The sequester was flawed, but it’s also the only successful attempt at government shrinkage in recent memory. Paul Ryan, that Cicero of fiscal conservatism, gutted it. He took the same approach to recent shenanigans over defense spending, supporting the nullification of budget caps in the short term and nebulously promising reform in the long term.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in economic wonkery to see a pattern here.
John Boehner took essentially the same approach for years and only managed to kick the can further and further down the road. And that brings us to the most commonly heard argument in support of a Ryan speakership, which is that he—and only he—can bring balance to the Republican caucus. His Midi-chlorian count really is that high.
That argument is flawed for two reasons. First, it adopts the inside-the-Beltway fetish for party stability, as though a lockstep Republican caucus is more important than passing good policy. Second, it assumes that a strong leader at the top can bring this GOP caucus to heel. House Republicans are riven by serious and substantive differences on everything from immigration to the nature of Congress’ power of the purse. It will take years to patch up these fractures—and the unity must come from below, not from above.
Which is why Paul Ryan’s conditions won’t stick, no matter how firmly they’re nailed to the chamber door. Ryan is a smart and talented lawmaker. But what if we tried someone less presumptuous and more fiscally conservative this time around?