Speaker Paul Ryan ended 2015 on an optimistic note Friday after passing legislation to keep the government open, but still has work to do in 2016 to reach his goal of uniting conservatives. (Photo: Gary Cameron/Reuters)
“I’m a happy warrior,” Speaker Paul Ryan declared to a handful of reporters gathered around a conference table in his ornate Capitol office suite, a few hours after the House sent a $1.15 trillion spending package to the Senate.
Ryan, seven weeks into his new job, seemed to mean it. In the honeymoon phase of his speakership, he won passage of an overhaul of the troubled No Child Left Behind education law, a long-term transportation bill, customs legislation, a $650 billion tax-cut package and, finally, on Friday, an omnibus to keep the government open through the fiscal year.
It may be easy for Ryan to be a “happy warrior” now, when all of these policy items were already teed up for him after months of work at the committee level, and after his predecessor, John Boehner of Ohio, set a topline budget agreement on his way out the door. Moreover, conservatives who so aggressively and publicly called for Boehner’s ouster want to show that they stand for more than just overthrowing the speaker.
Maybe that’s why Ryan’s “happy warrior” line, in response to a tough question about the negative tone of the presidential primary contest, resonated especially strongly during his 45-minute exchange with reporters, in a room freshly painted and scrubbed of evidence of Boehner’s two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Boehner’s favorite way to describe himself during multiple, tense government shutdown threats of his speakership was as a “happy warrior” — at least until insurgent right-wingers had sapped the happiness from his job, driving him to abruptly announce his resignation in September after years of endless battle.
So what can Ryan do to avoid the same fate? His first seven weeks hold some hints about how he views the speakership differently from his predecessors, how he’ll try to tamp down criticism from the anti-establishment voices of his conference and how he plans to change the conversation around House Republicans — by being the loudest voice in it.
As someone who initially did not want the speaker’s gavel, Ryan also does not seem bound by the longtime conventions dictating how to hold it.
One of the most notable changes Ryan has initiated has been press exposure: Ryan has been a constant presence on television and has held regular media availabilities, several times a week, including opportunities like the untelevised session Friday. And though reporters who keep track of all his appearances might be growing tired of the “bold agenda” and “confident America” talking points, Ryan has made himself into his own top surrogate. By publicly framing the policy debates the way he wants them to be seen, Ryan can give cover to members who previously “voted no, hoped yes” on controversial bills by trying to drown out the noise from outspoken tea party members who have used government funding bills as platforms to garner voter attention and intimidate their colleagues who feel threated by intraparty primaries.
Ryan has been much more aggressive with his media strategy, appearing regularly on television and before the Capitol Hill press. He currently employs 11 press staffers. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Another likely change is that Ryan might actually cast more votes himself. One of the little-known traditions of being speaker is not voting for or against legislation. In his five years as speaker, Boehner voted in fewer than 50 recorded roll call votes, although he almost always voted on measures that set the budget or kept the government open. Ryan already has cast two votes as speaker, for Friday’s omnibus and for legislation indefinitely pausing the acceptance of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
“There’s some precedent where I’m not supposed to vote for anything, they say, but I just wanted to show some leadership and vote for it,” Ryan said in response to a question from Yahoo News. He added that he also wanted to vote in favor of the tax bill but was “tied up.” An aide said he intends to be more of a presence on the floor, and cast more votes than previous speakers.
At multiple junctures, Ryan pointed out that he “inherited” the omnibus deal, that it was three-quarters “baked” and that members knew he was working against his will. Part of which is true, but most of which was by design — Boehner gave him cover and a valuable two years of spending levels as Ryan got his sea legs. But that excuse won’t fly in 2016, and Ryan will learn whether his changes in approach, his procedural concessions and his commitment to pursue regular order (the promise of all new leaders) will produce better results, given that he faces the same systemic obstacles as Boehner.
“I’m trying to decentralize power, I’m trying to take power away from this job, actually,” Ryan said of a job that has traditionally been all about controlled power. (Just ask current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who provided 166 votes Friday to keep the government open and is one of the most disciplined party vote counters in the history of the speaker’s office.)
The most significant hurdle Ryan faces is that the core group of Freedom Caucus members, between 45 and 50 of the House’s most conservative politicians, might be better categorized as antigovernment than for less government, which does not show signs of changing and causes serious heartburn for the person tasked with trying to lead them.
“I think that they just want me to be successful so that they can help us be successful as a team, and that’s why a lot of people voted for an omnibus bill, probably for the first time,” Ryan said Friday.
“It’s also quid pro quo in the sense that they want a new system, we want more participation, we want a fairer process, and since we’ve restored that fairness to the process — I’ve done everything I said I would do — I think people are relieved,” he added. “And they now realize the outcome doesn’t have to be perfect, it may not even be what they want, but at least they have a fair chance at affecting the outcome. And so I think people are turning over a new leaf. I’m sure there will be noise and there will be complaints on policy. That’s Congress. That always happens. But I think people see it’s a culture change.”
Ryan’s upbeat tone wavers when he’s faced with questions he doesn’t like, and most of those questions have to do with how he will be a different speaker than Boehner, how he will try to avoid falling into the trap of overpromising that Boehner and his former No. 2 Eric Cantor — who lost in his home district primary in Virginia in 2014 — cited as among their biggest mistakes as leaders.
“You’re leading the witness here. That’s not the right question,” Ryan tells one reporter from a Capitol Hill newspaper, when asked what the difference is between his promise to unveil legislation to “repeal and replace” Obamacare versus the dozens of previous futile votes the House has held to repeal the law.
“I don’t have some master plan in my mind in terms of my disposition or temperament,” he said to another reporter, who asked a follow-up about how he was planning to stay positive in 2016.
When asked how he would be perceived differently from Boehner by the tea party members in his conference, Ryan repeated that those colleagues “know” he is a “committed conservative.”
“I’m here because of ideas. I’m not here to have some office. None of that stuff matters to me. And they know that. I am a doer, not a ‘be-er.’ And they know that,” Ryan said. “I’m not saying other people weren’t. I’m not trying to say that. But [conservatives] are excited about next year.”
The biggest question for Ryan in 2016 and beyond is whether the members who “know” he’s a conservative now will continue to believe that as he has to make the tough decisions required of a leader. Boehner was once conservative, just as he was once a happier warrior, until he wasn’t.