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How Ryan outfoxed the Freedom Caucus

Being a smart policy wonk, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) realized that Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had failed to read the fine print on the House rules. This is why McCarthy, the once sure bet for Speaker, got knocked over by the House Freedom Caucus feather waving and the guy the talk show vigilantes disparaged as a sellout will get the Speaker’s job with the Freedom Caucus’s overwhelming support. How did this happen? 

For weeks the Freedom Caucus held the Republican House Conference hostage by saying it was willing to use a WMD, aka A Motion To Vacate the Chair. This little known rule supposedly gave about 40 “my way or the highway” self-styled conservative revolutionaries a procedural weapon to force any Republican to kiss their ring if he or she wanted to remain in the Speaker’s chair. The press, pundits and the other 246 members of the House Republican Conference accepted this claim.  

{mosads}But Ryan asked himself: How can such a small group, consisting of politicians unknown to most Americans, make such ultimatums? He therefore sat down, not with a calculator but with a pencil, and worked the numbers the old-fashioned way. A Motion to Vacate the Chair requires a simple majority of the House members voting. If it passes, the Speaker would be toppled. Thus the Freedom Caucus gave its fellow Republicans the following choice: we might let you pick a Speaker we don’t like but we reserve the right to help the Democrats topple him whenever we feel aggrieved. Who would want the job, already thankless, with a WMD wielded by angry backbenchers hanging over his or her head? Political observers said the Freedom Caucus had outfoxed everyone.

Ryan, however, realized the Freedom Caucus had a Weapon of Mass Delusion, not Destruction. Why did he call their bluff? 

Basic math. It is true that on paper, adding the Freedom Caucus loyalists to the Democratic House minority comprises a majority of the body’s members. This seemingly gives a Freedom Caucus-Democratic alliance the votes to deploy the WMD at will.  

But it is most unsophisticated political vote-counting. This is why Ryan made a brilliant misdirection move, worthy of a great magician, by seeming to demand the Freedom Caucus agree to rules changes making the Motion To Vacate harder to employ as his price for running for Speaker. The experts said this was Ryan’s why of agreeing to help his Party in need but setting up a pre-condition he knew couldn’t be met. As expected, the Freedom Caucus said no. The talk show vigilantes laughed at Ryan, saying his candidacy was now DOA unless he agreed to swallow a poison pill. Ryan’s allies were thus surprised when he agreed to drop demands to make the Motion To Vacate harder to deploy against him. 

Had the Wisconsinite gone crazy? Like a fox.  

Now do the math like a pro. For the conservative rebels to succeed, they need Democrats to do the following: in front of the American people, accept responsibility for throwing the House of Representatives into chaos by getting on the Freedom Caucus crazy train for selfish political reasons. Why would Democrats, who are pitching themselves as the party able to govern, risk getting blamed for this governing mess? It is one thing for Democrats to trip-up the GOP without being seen as playing politics. But there is no benefit to the Democrats to brazenly, in full public view, provide the overwhelming majority of votes to derail the system.

Why would Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the shrewdest card player on the Democratic side, kiss the ring of the Freedom Caucus after waiting an hour for a crowd to gather? 

Right now, the mess in the House is seen rightly as the fault of the GOP majority. Its actions have driven the Congress’s image into the Capitol Hill ditch. It is their Speakership problem, not the Democrats’. Ryan got it right: The Motion to Vacate the Chair isn’t a bunker buster, but a fool maker.

The future Speaker knows that the former Speaker is never going to provide the votes to enable the Freedom Caucus to create havoc.  Why would the Freedom Caucus believe that Pelosi would actually help the most ardent conservative Republicans achieve victory?  It suggests the depths to which these self-proclaimed rebels have sunk in their unthinking. Democrats will, indeed should, do all they can to make Republicans foils for the next election. That’s good politics.

But they can’t light themselves on fire in full public view.   

The country is looking for problem solvers, not problem makers. Yes, the Motion To Vacate The Chair is a WMD if loaded with Democratic ammo. But what would possess Democrats to strap themselves to the device and let Republicans blow them all up?

Ironically the conservative rebels have some legitimate proposals to make the House of Representatives more democratic. We would urge Speaker Ryan to consider certain needed reforms. Given how he outfoxed the Freedom Caucus, he can do it without being seen as buying a ticket on their crazy train.    

Goldman writes a weekly column for the Washington Post and is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Rozell is acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

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