With Paul Ryan’s election as the 62nd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s a good time to reflect on the Speaker’s role in American government, and in history.
The House has always been a volatile, raucous legislative branch of government full of Type A personalities jostling for power and alpha males seeking to dominate each other. There has long been a tension between how much party loyalty to impose from the top down, and how much “freedom” to give individual lawmakers to vote their consciences and to express their independence of party.
“Since the 1990s, the defining characteristic of this congressional era has been a hardening of party discipline enforced by increasingly centralized direction from party leadership,” wrote Ron Brownstein in National Journal. “The hard-right Freedom Caucus has pushed to weaken the speakership and to diffuse more power to committees and individual members. Previously, the House’s most ideological elements have always led the drive to centralize power.”
This shift dovetailed with other structural changes that promoted party discipline. More overtly partisan media on both the Left and the Right put pressure on legislators who veered from the party consensus. Internet fundraising allowed activist groups to bankroll more challenges in primary elections against incumbents viewed as ideologically suspect. These factors combined with the internal centralization of authority to produce the highest level of party-line voting in Congress since the early 20th century, a quasi-parliamentary system that saw the two parties vote in virtual lockstep against each other on most major issues. More discipline within the parties meant more conflict between them.
Outgoing Speaker John Boehner, by his own admission, leaves quite a modest legacy after four years — some spending cuts, ending earmarks and preserving the D.C. school voucher program. (Never mind that earmarks sometimes provided the horse-trading, grease, or pork, necessary to bargain, compromise and to pass legislation.)
Brownstein points out that “on nine occasions, Boehner has been compelled to pass critical legislation—including one to avoid the “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012—with votes from Democrats because too many conservative Republicans refused to support him.”
Boehner’s power was weakened by groups of ideological zealots like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, who raised millions and threatened primary challenges for Republicans who showed signs of “sell out” or compromise.
After his retirement, he blamed the failure to accomplish much to the Tea Party and an ideological movement led by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whom he called “Lucifer in the flesh” and “a miserable son of a bitch.” He took great pleasure in Cruz’s failure to win the Republican nomination, and pledged his support to Donald Trump, a golf partner. Boehner also played a role in a White House video, suggesting he and President Obama could have reached a grand bargain on taxes and spending if not for the zealots in the Republican Party.
Ryan reportedly placated members of the Freedom Caucus by promising to abide by the “Hastert Rule” — to not bring up legislation for floor action unless it is supported by a majority of Republicans. Jim Newell in Slate pointed out:
In the current configuration of the House, obeying the Hastert rule means abandoning the natural, ad-hoc governing coalition of Democrats and procedurally moderate Republicans that exists. It means obliging conservatives and calling up only their hardline legislation that goes nowhere in the Senate and faces a veto from President Obama. It means agreeing to a rule that needs to be broken in order to ensure global economic stability.
Since Republicans took the House majority in 2011, Ryan said in his acceptance speech, “our party lost its vision, and we are going to replace it with a vision.” But what will his vision be and will it be popular with the people, and the members?
“The so-called Paul Ryan budget—a definitive statement of Republican policy objectives—is essentially the Gingrich 1995 agenda reborn,” write Democratic aides Nick Littlefield and David Nexon in Time. “It proposes to privatize and cut Medicare, block grant and cut Medicaid, block grant and cut the anti-hunger programs, make deep cuts in discretionary programs, and increase tax cuts for the wealthy.”
Is Ryan likely to bring the Republican caucus together, serve a long time in the Speaker’s chair and truly make his mark on the House and the direction of the Republican Party? Or will he be a relatively weak speaker, conceivably serving less than two years before giving up the chair to a Democrat?
Ryan’s position as Speaker seems relatively secure until at least the beginning of 2019. Republicans in the fall of 2015 control the House 247 to 188. It’s unlikely that Democrats can win the 30 seats necessary in the 2016 elections to retake the House unless their presidential candidate wins in a landslide. But it’s not impossible: 26 Republicans hold seats that Obama won, and 47 lawmakers from districts that Mitt Romney won by less than 10 percentage points.
Win a few more independent-minded districts and Democrats could have their majority.
Ryan will surely serve at least as long as Jim Wright, Democrat of Texas, who served for two years before he got into ethics trouble; or Joseph William Martin, Republican of Massachusetts, who served as Speaker from 1947-49; and 1953-55. The House flipped party control twice during his tenure.
If the Republican Party proves to be hopelessly divided, as the Whig party was in the mid-19th century before it dissolved, Ryan’s tenure could be quite short. From 1839 to 1863 there were 11 Speakers, only one of whom served for more than one term.
Notable Speakers of the House in the Modern Era:
Sam Rayburn, Democrat of Texas (1940-47; 49-53; 55-61). Speaker during the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies, Rayburn accomplished a great deal.
Joseph William Martin, Republican of Massachusetts (1947-49; 53-55). Speaker for only four years during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.
John McCormick, Democrat of Massachusetts (1962 – 1971). Speaker during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon presidencies.
Carl Albert, Democrat of Oklahoma (1971-77). Speaker during the Nixon and Ford presidencies.
Tip O’Neill, Democrat of Massachusetts (1977 – 1987). Speaker during the Carter and Reagan presidencies. Chris Matthew’s book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, chronicles the bipartisan compromises of the Reagan era.
Jim Wright, Democrat of Texas (1987-1989). Speaker for only two years at the end of the Reagan presidency and beginning of the G.H.W. Bush presidency.
Thomas Foley of Washington (1989-1995). Speaker during three years of the Bush 41 presidency and two years with Bill Clinton.
Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia (1995-1998). Speaker during four years of the Clinton presidency. Best book on his tenure that may presage the present moment: “Tell Newt to Shut Up”: How the Gingrich revolution ran aground within one year.
Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois (1998-2007). Speaker during the final Clinton years and most of the Bush 43 years. Generally considered a very genial and competent Speaker of the House, Hastert would have been dead in the water if charges of pedophilia when he was a high school coach in the early 1980s were known shortly after he assumed power in 1998. The story broke in 2015, and Hastert faces jail time for giving millions in hush money.
Nancy Pelosi of California (2007-2011). Speaker during the final two years of Bush 43 and first two years of Obama.
John Boehner, Republican of Illinois (2011 – 2015). Speaker during the middle years of Obama’s presidency.
Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin (2015 – ?). Speaker during the final years of the Obama presidency…
Historic Speakers (Wikipedia)
Henry Clay — “The position of Speaker started to gain its partisan role and its power in legislative development under Henry Clay(1811–1814, 1815–1820, and 1823–1825). In contrast to many of his predecessors, Clay participated in several debates, and used his influence to procure the passage of measures he supported—for instance, the declaration of theWar of 1812, and various laws relating to Clay’s “American System” economic plan. Furthermore, when no candidate received an Electoral College majority in the 1824 presidential election causing the President to be elected by the House, Speaker Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson, thereby ensuring Adams’ victory.
Joseph Gurney Cannon (1903–1911) — Cannon exercised extraordinary control over the legislative process. He determined the agenda of the House, appointed the members of all committees, chose committee chairmen, headed the Rules Committee, and determined which committee heard each bill. He vigorously used his powers to ensure that Republican proposals were passed by the House. In 1910, however, Democrats and several dissatisfied Republicans joined together to strip Cannon of many of his powers, including the ability to name committee members and his chairmanship of the Rules Committee. Fifteen years later, Speaker Nicholas Longworth restored much, but not all, of the lost influence of the position.