Lobbyists fret about lame-duck Speaker

Lobbyists fret about lame-duck Speaker
© Greg Nash

Lobbyists are bracing for the uncertainty that comes with having a lame-duck Speaker of the House.

Even before Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow does the 25th Amendment work? Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act GOP super PAC drops .5 million on Nevada ad campaign MORE’s (R-Wis.) retirement announcement earlier this month, the legislative outlook in Congress for the rest of the year was grim. Lawmakers are shifting into campaign mode and are expected to spend much of the summer and fall away from Washington.

But some lobbyists say Ryan’s departure will make passing legislation even more difficult. 

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“The Speaker is now a lame duck, and has very little juice to get his members to vote in any which way because he is no longer necessarily looking out for them,” said one political operative. “The feeling is that when you retire before the election, and you’re a leader, that you lose all of your leverage.


“He may need to go take care of his family and that’s great, and that’s a very honorable reason, but Republicans are not going to fall on their swords and take tough votes, because the Speaker is leaving the battle.”

Congress is facing a hard deadline this year on a handful of bills, including the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a farm bill and government funding legislation — but passing them is likely to require deal-making by leadership, given the opportunities for lawmakers to attach other items. 

Lobbyists are eyeing the must-pass legislation as their best chance to score victories before the midterm elections.

Changes to the GOP’s new tax law, for example, could be attached to the FAA bill, “so you’re going to have your tax lobbyists [trying] to get a fix on it,” a Republican lobbyist told The Hill.

“FAA [reauthorization] becomes a Christmas tree where people get stuff packed into it,” the lobbyist added.

Routine reauthorization legislation, like the FAA bill, is generally not difficult to pass, but Ryan’s looming departure could change the calculus.

“In general, the level of difficulty of any votes increases when there is a change or impending change in leadership. If it were easy before, it would still be easy but not as easy; and if it was hard before, it’s a little harder now,” said Sage Eastman, a principal at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas.

“I don’t know that it fundamentally changes the outlook or prospects for any piece of legislation, but there is a difficulty factor that gets factored in,” he said.

The House is also in talks about rescinding some of the spending Congress approved earlier this year and moving on to more tax cuts this summer, but neither bill is likely to go anywhere in the Senate.

Despite the chatter about his influence waning, Ryan has insisted that he’ll be staying on as Speaker for the rest of his term.

“I’ve talked to a lot of members who think it’s in all of our best interest for this leadership team to stay in place and run through the tape,” he said earlier this month.

Still, Ryan has Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Midterms to shake up top posts on House finance panel The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil MORE (R-Calif.) to succeed him as Speaker. If McCarthy is able to secure the 218 votes he would need to win the gavel in a floor vote, some political observers speculate that Ryan could step down early, potentially this summer. 

But it’s far from certain that McCarthy, or any other candidate, can get the necessary number of votes, particularly with the conservative Freedom Caucus seeking more power in the conference in return for its support.

Conservatives in the House are also wary of deals or items that could be placed in funding bills before the election, making it that much harder to get legislation across the finish line.

“If I’m a House member, I want to know what that lame-duck [session after the election] is going to look like before I give you my vote,” one conservative lobbyist said. “They have all kinds of things they can do in November and December going out the door. What does that look like? For conservatives, that looks like a nightmare.”

The outlook for bills passing in the Senate, which will be preoccupied with confirming Trump administration nominees, appears even bleaker.

The midterms might also throw a wrench into getting the must-pass bills through, with Republicans fearing that a Democratic wave will result in them losing control of one or both chambers in November. 

Democrats so far are running high in the polls of previously solid GOP districts and dominating in fundraising, which could result in a bumper crop of Democrats being elected to Congress in November.

The potential for major Democratic gains in the elections could make their leaders less likely to cut deals on major bills.

“If you’re sitting in [Senate Democratic leader Charles] Schumer’s chair, if the polling in the House continues to be terrible, you start losing a lot of motivation to cut deals,” the first Republican lobbyist said.

“I think they’re done [working until after the election],” he added. “It’s a bad place to be as a contract lobbyist.”