By Billy House
It was never going to be easy for House Speaker Paul Ryan to cut through the noise of a presidential campaign and chart out a course of conservative policies for the Republican Party.
But the bombast and divisiveness of the presidential campaign has left Ryan struggling to do the most basic duties of Congress.
With the two Republican front-runners — Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz — effectively running against Congress and the rest of the Republican establishment, Ryan more than ever needs to deliver on some kind of agenda in his first full year as speaker. Otherwise, he could help cement Congress as a distinctly junior partner in a Trump or Cruz presidency.
His biggest problem is that the policies and rhetoric of his party’s presidential front-runners have become unusually out of step with a large portion of Republicans in Congress, notes Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
“Ryan has to navigate what’s best for his conference amidst one of the more major upheavals of his party,” Huder said. “He’ll either need to lie low and let the fight play out in the presidential race, or he’ll need to outline priorities that protect his conference at the expense of his party’s nominee.”
This means that actions many took for granted this year — a budget resolution and spending bills — have suddenly become part of a high-stakes test of whether Ryan and the Republican-led Congress can take care of their own business and not get drowned out by an increasingly fractious presidential campaign.
“It’s hard to imagine a worse time to try and carve out a conservative vision from the speakership,” Huder said.
The tone of the campaign is also posing challenges for Republican incumbents facing re-election, who will have to straddle the gaps between the agenda in Congress and the rhetoric of the campaigns.
Ryan is trying to project a sense that nothing has changed.
“Look, we’re going to speak out for who we are and what we believe; we’re going to run on our beliefs, we’re going to run on our ideas,” he told reporters last week. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
The question becomes, then, whose ideas and beliefs?
Take federal spending priorities, for instance.
Less than five months after calls for Republican Party “healing” and “regular order” were all in vogue with Ryan’s ascension, the speaker is struggling to get House Republicans to agree on a budget blueprint, let alone a dozen separate spending bills.
While Ryan is trying to forge a deal that will allow serious debate in both chambers on spending bills, House conservatives want to cut spending levels below the $1.07 trillion spending cap set in a bipartisan deal last October by Ryan’s predecessor as speaker, John Boehner.
House conservatives are sticking to their demands to cut an additional $30 billion to demonstrate the party’s commitment to fiscal restraint, so Ryan and his team are continuing to pursue tweaks. The speaker has long championed the budget resolution as a prime vehicle to outline a conservative policy agenda. The deadline for a budget plan is April 14, and Ryan insists lawmakers remain on schedule, although he declines to give a specific timeline for a potential House budget vote.
The odds are increasing that either the House or the Senate, or both, will skip doing a budget this year. The Senate Budget Committee said Monday it would postpone action indefinitely on a fiscal 2017 budget resolution.
These are the same old Republican divisions and challenges that plagued Boehner, points out Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But she adds there are broad repercussions for Ryan, nonetheless.
“It’s hard to lay claim to an ideas-motivated agenda when the key document for stating party priorities — the budget resolution — is mired in deadlock,” she said.
Paul Ryan had promised a fresh brand of speakership that would change the way Republicans have been operating in the House majority — less internal infighting, more rank-and-file say-so, and no more lurching from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, he said. He has also been promising to rally Republicans in a campaign year behind a batch of “bold” conservative ideas.
The lack of cohesion over the 2017 federal budget could undercut Ryan as someone within the Republican Party establishment who can stand up and respond authoritatively to controversies or unorthodoxies dished out by leading candidate Trump.
“Ryan has a doubly hard job because the House seems to be in an especially recalcitrant mood, Trump’s strongman rhetoric has been popular, and the public seems disinclined to approve of actions by representative government,” said Paul Brace, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.
Ryan, for his part, explained last week during a Capitol news conference that his self-described “bold agenda” will produce House Republican positions — though not necessarily floor votes — on such areas as tax reform, poverty, trade and immigration. The aim, he said, is to provide “a keel and a rudder” by summer to give unifying direction to the Republican Party in a presidential election year.
Yet, at that same news conference, Ryan was peppered with questions about Trump’s deviations from party policy on issues including trade, Planned Parenthood funding and immigration reform.
Ryan told reporters he “laughed out loud” when Trump warned on national TV that Ryan would have to get along with him or “pay a big price.” Ryan has within the past few days held phone calls with both Trump and Cruz to discuss the House Republicans’ agenda, according to his spokeswoman, Ashlee Strong.
There are a few members of the House Republican conference who are gravitating to Trump, including Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania. Marino argues that for four decades the White House has become inhabited by governors, senators or vice presidents — Washington and political insiders.
“How is that working for us?” Marino asks, noting the nation is now $19 trillion in debt.
To the extent that Ryan wants to carve out his own vision, Huder suggests he can still do so by having votes on bills that may not become law but which highlight the message he wants to send — creating distance from the Republican nominee.
But New York-based political pollster John Zogby said that carries risks, and Ryan’s credibility is on the line no matter what he does.
“Paul Ryan is learning that being a speaker who represents the heart and soul of the party is impossible, because the heart and soul of the party is turning out to be real elusive,” says Zogby.