Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017

Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017
© Greg Nash

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWho should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? The Pelosi administration It's not populism that's killing America's democracy MORE (R-Wis.) has decided that his House colleagues won’t receive their committee assignments until January — after they cast a public vote on the House floor for Speaker, GOP sources told The Hill.

The move has sparked behind-the-scenes grumbling from a handful of Ryan critics, who say the delay allows him and the Speaker-aligned Steering Committee to dole out committee assignments based on political loyalty rather than merit or expertise.

The first vote of the new Congress, the roll call to formally reelect the Speaker, is set for Jan. 3. 

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Ryan is expected to cruise to another two-year term as Speaker; he can probably lose nearly two dozen GOP votes and still manage to hang onto the gavel. But some of the private complaints about the Speaker's schedule are now spilling out into the public. 

“I highly encourage our leadership to take into account the central theme of this election: ‘Drain the Swamp,’” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a leader of the far-right Freedom Caucus and one of 10 Republicans who did not back Ryan for Speaker last year and likely won’t vote for him next month. 

“I would hope we could put people where they could best be used to further the 30,000-foot interest of the country,” Brat continued, “and I certainly hope that we are not getting anywhere near identifying committee roles as political rewards.”

Retiring Rep. Matt SalmonMatthew (Matt) James SalmonArizona voters like Kyl but few think he'll stick around Former Sen. Jon Kyl to replace McCain in Senate Arizona governor faces pressure over McCain replacement MORE (R-Ariz.), another member of the Freedom Caucus that forced out then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows set to resign from Congress as he moves to White House The Pelosi administration MORE (R-Ohio) in September 2015, said he’s baffled by the delay. 

While Ryan’s Speakership may have been in doubt before the election, Salmon said, there is no organized Freedom Caucus effort to oust him now that the GOP controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

“I don’t believe Ryan needs to operate from a position of weakness. And he appears to operating from a position of weakness,” Salmon said in a phone interview.

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The roughly 30-member Steering Committee, the Arizona congressman noted, has already been seated for the 115th Congress. The powerful panel, which hands out coveted committee gavels and committee assignments, voted on chairmen last week and could have voted on committee assignments this week before departing for the holidays.

“If they want to hit ground running, it would seem appointments would be made as quickly as possible,” Salmon continued. “The Speaker has gone to great pains to signal he will operate on meritocracy rather than reward partisan hacks for complete loyalty.

“This doesn’t seem to fit Paul’s leadership style.”

But any sort of conservative revolt against Ryan seems highly unlikely at this point. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who is expected to win election as the new chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said he has absolutely "no concerns" about Ryan’s delay. 

“I trust the Speaker to have a fair and merit-based decision making process on committee assignments,” said Meadows, who led the charge last year to oust BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerMeadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows set to resign from Congress as he moves to White House The Pelosi administration MORE from his leadership post.

Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong declined to respond to the criticism. But one senior GOP leadership aide argued that the Steering panel’s time frame has been laid out and communicated clearly to members since Election Day.

“This has been discussed and explained multiple times at conference and members have appreciated the approach taken,” the leadership aide said.

Two factors are pushing Steering decisions on committee assignments to plum “A” and “B” committees until after the holidays, the aide said. The calendar, set by GOP leaders, dictated that House members were only in Washington for four days between Election Day and Thanksgiving.

Second, internal GOP rules changes — including a successful push by rank-and-file members to expand the number of regional representatives on the Steering panel — also pushed back Steering leaders’ timetable, the leadership aide added.

“Bottom line is that members asked for organizational changes to rules and steering composition,” the aide said. “Those changes took time but Ryan delivered, and because of that and the legislative calendar this year, populating committees will happen in January.”

Ryan sits atop the Steering Committee, which is mostly comprised of members of his leadership team and regional representatives. His decision to postpone committee assignments until after the holidays is a departure from his predecessor, Boehner, who handed out most assignments before the new Congress comes into session. 

“Under Boehner’s leadership, all committee assignments were usually completed before the Christmas break,” said a GOP source familiar with how Boehner handled committee assignments. 

“This is a smart move” by Ryan, the source added. “No one should be rewarded if they vote against the conference on Speaker.”

Ryan, the former chairman of the Ways and Means and Budget committees, easily won his party’s nomination for another term as Speaker during a closed-door meeting of House Republicans a week after Election Day. The 46-year-old congressman isn’t expected to have any trouble winning reelection as Speaker when Congress returns on Jan. 3. 

Though it’s anticipated that some Republicans like Brat will cast a vote against Ryan, the Speaker would be able to hold onto his gavel even if nearly two dozen Republicans defected. 

"If I were Ryan's team, I would play it exactly the same. This is about accountability for the floor vote on Speaker,” said one chief of staff to a GOP lawmaker who sits on a top “A” committee. 

It sends an unmistakable message to Ryan's detractors: "If you are going to shoot at the king," the chief said, "don’t miss!”