Maybe Republicans in Congress will listen to Paul Ryan in the future.
That’s the most optimistic way of looking at Tuesday’s ethics office mess. It’s the only potential silver lining on a day when the legislative branch — as an institution — started a new and very important year on a bad foot.
Congress and its Republican leaders will need every ounce of political capital they have in the coming months and years during a Trump presidency. President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t acknowledge constitutional restraints on the presidency when discussing his broad agenda. House Speaker Ryan held off on endorsing him for this very reason.
And Ryan, for all his effort during the late stages of the presidential campaign to heal his relationship with Trump, knows it’s quite possible Congress will have to act as a check on Trump if the next president tries to overextend the powers of the executive branch.
But what Trump understands better than many traditional politicians is that public perception creates political power. Congress is already regarded with contempt by most Americans: Polls show that only one out of every five Americans approves of the legislative body. And Trump won the presidency by promising to wring establishment Washington by the neck.
So when House Republicans voted Monday night to make changes to an independent ethics committee that was interpreted as gutting its power, they handed Trump a club with which to beat them over the head. Two House leadership sources told Yahoo News that Ryan opposed the changes.
Trump, never one to let a public outcry go unharnessed, promptly tweeted his disapproval of the move — a calculated criticism of the GOP’s timing more than the actual substance — and by Tuesday at lunchtime, the House Republicans had scrapped their plan.
For Congress, it was an unfortunate way to start the year. They rolled over at the first sign of displeasure from the president-elect, even if outraged phone calls to their offices were as much a motivator as anything else.
But for Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican now in his second year as speaker, the red flags were more substantial. He took a hit to his own public perception, and weaknesses in his leadership style were exposed.
He opposed the vote but was unable to persuade them not to do it. Then on Tuesday morning, Ryan put out a statement defending what Republicans had voted on, trying to tamp down the idea that the GOP had gutted or destroyed the ethics office or its independence.
Hours later, he held a private meeting with other leaders and with members including Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who had led the effort to change the Office of Congressional Ethics, and they agreed to withdraw the proposal from a vote in the full House.
Ryan looked bad at every stage. He looked weak for not stopping his members from supporting it. His integrity will take a hit with those who perceive him as trying to help Congress evade ethics oversight. And finally, Trump’s critics will view House Republicans as the president-elect’s errand boys for backing down so quickly.
Perhaps most significant, this episode exposed a vulnerability in Ryan’s leadership style. Ryan can’t stomach the idea of being a strong-arm leader, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or the two Democrats who have led their parties in the Senate and House for the past several years: retiring Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
It’s partly generational and partly a personality thing. Ryan prefers to make his case and to remain on good terms with all members of his Republican conference. He doesn’t want to be the bad guy. His own advisers and allies admit as much.
It may be that episodes like the ethics office flap will work out in the long run. Perhaps Goodlatte and others have learned a lesson, that they should heed the warnings of Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in the future. Maybe Ryan’s nice guy approach will work.
But more likely, it won’t. Ryan tried to respect and protect his own members at every turn. He deferred to their wishes for autonomy in voting for the changes. He tried to help them by explaining the move. And he was trying to minimize damage to Congress by getting Goodlatte to back off pushing for the measure.
Ryan is leery of raw power, of being rough with allies and fellow party members, of forcing them to get in line. It’s a sentiment shared by other younger members of Congress, including younger senators.
But if Ryan wants the House to solve problems through legislation and to present a unified, co-equal branch of government that can stand up to the executive branch, he may need to get comfortable with being feared rather than loved. Maybe telling a young man to stop dabbing in a photo Tuesday afternoon was a good start.