Trump should not control convention gavel

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s surprise revelation Monday that he would not chair the Republican National Convention if the presumptive presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump asks him not to, could have disastrous consequences for floor proceedings at the Cleveland conclave next July if that scenario plays out.

Contrary to some news accounts, the Speaker’s role as convention chairman is not “honorific” or “ceremonial.” The Republican National Committee chairman nominates all the officers of the convention to the Convention Committee on Permanent Organization, and its report must be approved by the full convention.  The vote occurs after adoption of the credentials committee’s report, at a point in the program in the order of business as designated by the RNC.  

{mosads}The top officer of the convention is “the Permanent Chairman of the Convention” who is traditionally the Republican party leader in the House (either the Speaker or minority leader).   The chairman of the convention presides over conduct of all business, including debate on and adoption of the reports of the various convention committees (credentials, permanent organization, rules and platform).  The chairman recognizes delegates to offer motions on adopting reports, offering amendments to them (with requisite support), to put names into nominations; and announces the results of votes, rules on points of order and responds to parliamentary inquiries. 

The reason the House Republican leader is usually appointed chairman (and the top Republican on the House Rules Committee is appointed parliamentarian), is that House Rules govern floor proceedings.  Roberts’ Rules of Order are used only for RNC meetings and meetings of the various convention committees.

Ryan’s comment Monday that he would step down as a chairman if the presumptive nominee requests it was in response to an interview question and not necessarily a carefully considered or calculated formal announcement.  Ryan should re-think his answer independent of Trump’s wishes after meeting with both the candidate and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus this Thursday.  In the final analysis, it is Priebus’s call as to who to nominate as chairman.  It would be unprecedented (not to mention unseemly) for the party’s likely nominee to control the appointment of the presiding officer who often must decide questions involving competing factions within the party, whether on matters of credentials, rules or the platform. 

Just as the Speaker of the House is a neutral presiding officer, so too is a convention chairman.  If a permanent chairman is handpicked or anointed by the presumptive nominee, every minor ruling of the chair could be called into question by substantial numbers of delegates or states as being biased. To depart from the traditional means of choosing a presiding officer could jeopardize the orderly proceedings that lend credence and confidence in the convention’s final choices.  The last thing Republicans should want at this point is chaos on the convention floor.

Speaker Paul Ryan is understandably nervous about being thrust into the role of presiding over this convention.  As he has indicated on more than one occasion, when he agreed to becoming Speaker, he did not know it also entailed being GOP convention chairman.  The fact that he has been reluctant to endorse Trump so far is irrelevant.  After all, the reason he gave for not endorsing any primary candidates was his role as convention chairman. 

If anything, Ryan’s non-endorsement gives him more credibility as a neutral presiding officer — a trait that will be in high demand at a party convention following a primary season that has been more unconventional than any other in recent memory.   Ryan is the one national Republican leader who is clearly the right person to step into this role at this difficult time and help move his party forward into the fall election season with its platform and nominees.  

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and assistant parliamentarian at the 1992 and 1996 Republican National Conventions.

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