A warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk

Greg Nash

Speculating who will become the next Speaker of the House is Washington’s latest parlor game. Though Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is a front-runner, the names of several other potential Republican candidates have been tossed around. And if Democrats take over the chamber in January, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will likely return to the Speakership.

But this guessing game misses a bigger and more serious issue raised by Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) impending retirement: the position of Speaker has become far more challenging than it once was. In fact, no matter who follows in Ryan’s footsteps, that person will almost certainly have one of the most difficult jobs in national politics.

{mosads}One reason why the Speakership is a challenge is the current occupant of the White House. Ostensibly a Republican, President Trump is neither part of the GOP establishment nor wedded to its platform. His administration has pursued traditional conservative policy in some issue areas, but it has been decidedly unorthodox in others. Trump’s embrace of a trade war with China, his reluctance to sanction Russia for violations of international law, and his failure to sell the new Republican tax law speak volumes about the president’s dim interest in the GOP’s agenda or its legislative accomplishments.

This is a big problem for a Republican Speaker, because, as I have written elsewhere, Speakers are expected to support the political and policy objectives of a same-party president. Although Ryan claims his retirement had nothing to do with Trump, as Speaker he repeatedly found himself in disagreement with the president on a slew of policy matters. One of the major puzzles facing Ryan, which he has never fully solved, is how to help a president win partisan victories when the Chief Executive couldn’t care less about party.

If Democrats retake the House, Trump’s disinterest in the GOP presents an intriguing possibility that the Democratic Speaker will successfully craft bipartisan legislative deals with the White House. But that path is fraught with risk, since Trump is hugely unpopular among Democrats and likely to remain so. In addition, the president’s erratic and mercurial leadership style make him an unreliable negotiating partner. Trump has openly supported Democrats on immigration and gun control initiatives, for instance, only to reverse himself soon afterwards.

The other, more fundamental reason the job of Speaker has become so taxing is that, regardless of who is in the White House, the office is caught between two countervailing forces. The first is heightened party polarization in Congress. Hyper-partisanship has made Speakers natural targets for attacks by ideological opponents, hampering their popularity and forcing them to turn to their own party for votes, which in turn limits their capacity to build majority coalitions.

The second force is deepening divisions within the governing party. Disagreements between moderates and conservatives in the House GOP have made it incredibly difficult for Speakers to gather the necessary 218 votes within the Republican Conference to pass landmark legislation. One organized faction, the House Freedom Caucus, even helped push Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner (R-Ohio), out of office altogether. And while factional discord has been especially severe within the GOP, Democrats are hardly unified either. They could easily develop serious rifts along ideological or generational lines should they become the majority party next year.

These internal and external pressures on Speakers have contributed to less security for those who occupy the office. Beginning in 1989, every Speaker before Ryan has felt compelled to resign mid-term, has lost reelection to the House, or has been forced out because their party lost the majority. That insecurity makes the job even less attractive to would-be candidates, and it discourages Speakers from thinking about long term policy-making or the health of Congress as an institution.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that a full week after Ryan’s announced departure, not one member of Congress had officially declared their candidacy for Speaker. It is not a job many people would willingly take–and for good reason.

Matthew Green is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership and a forthcoming book (coauthored with Doug Harris) on leadership races in Congress.

Tags Boehner congressional leadership Donald Trump John Boehner Kevin McCarthy Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan Speakership

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