By Joshua C. Huder
Speaker Paul Ryan’s announced retirement from the House raises the immediate and obvious question: what happens with a lame duck Speaker? Prior to President Trump’s election, the Speaker openly refused to defend or campaign for the then-nominee, openly criticized his immigration reform proposals, and was widely seen as an antagonist rather than ally. Since the election, Ryan has been far less critical of the President, but now that the Speaker is retiring, there’s an open question as to how he will manage his relationship with the President.
The conventional wisdom on retiring members is, broadly speaking, liberation. No longer constrained by reelection concerns, members are unshackled, free to pursue the topics, policies, and votes of their conscience rather than their constituents. To a large degree this is true. There’s evidence retiring members change their voting patterns, skip votes more often, and pursue more tightly focused legislative agendas rather than emphasize parochial and widely varied issues. It’s not a dramatic change in behavior but it’s there.
However, the speakership is different and there are reasons to believe the conventional wisdom does not hold. First, Speakers maintain two constituencies: their congressional district and members of the majority party. The Speaker doesn’t vote and if he pursues an individual policy agenda, he has the tools to keep it well under wraps. His second constituency, his Republican colleagues, makes things trickier.
Leadership in Congress mostly functions as a principal-agent relationship. While Speakers have wide discretion over the House agenda, modern Speakers are considered creatures of their caucus. They schedule votes on bills their party supports -- now a decades-long norm in House politics. What was originally termed the Hastert rule – the Speaker does not schedule bills that do not receive support from a majority of their caucus – has morphed into something even more partisan. For example, it is rare to find bills without Republican majority support, particularly outside of must-pass legislation.
This procedural strategy has several political advantages. Truly partisan bills are great for elections, messaging and fundraising. Party leaders are worried about winning enough seats to keep their majority. This frequently requires keeping their base sufficiently motivated for the next election. Therefore, even in circumstances where bipartisan support exists for a particular policy, speakers will schedule votes on partisan bills as a way to signal and claim credit to their ideological bases.
Just as an example, progressive Democrats were very fired up about a banking bill a few weeks ago that had passed the House and has significant Democratic support in the Senate. Financial regulation bills frequently enjoy bipartisan support in Congress. Many Democrats in NY, NJ, CT, and other states represent districts with a high volume of banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions. But despite bipartisan support for many bills repealing financial regulations, the first significant bill Speaker Ryan scheduled on this issue was a near-total repeal of the 2010 Dodd-Frank bill – the huge financial reform bill passed in the wake of the financial collapse – that was dead-on-arrival in the Senate. Passing a bill that will never become law is politically smart because it enables lawmakers to claim credit for achieving very conservative/partisan policy goals. It collectively helps their reelection bids. (As an aside, large chunks of that Dodd-Frank repeal have been carved up and are moving through Congress with bipartisan support).
The Speaker may not be running for reelection, but his colleagues are. Regardless of his retirement, the Speaker has a responsibility to save the seats of as many of his colleagues as possible. In sum, his reelection incentives may have disappeared but his political goals are largely unchanged.
As a result, barring the catastrophic, it’s unlikely Ryan’s leadership will be very different. He still has to manage a difficult midterm election. The President’s supporters and his colleagues’ voters are still concentrated in the same districts. Ryan will still want to appear to support the White House and its message, or at a bare minimum not overtly oppose it.
Congressional leaders cannot walk away from the job the same way rank-and-file members can. That means Speaker Ryan is probably not going rogue. If he does, it’s likely evidence he plans to resign before the end of his term.