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Ryan’s First Test: The Highway Bill

Capitol workers installed the new Speaker of the House sign at the entrance to the speaker's office suite in the Capitol in the early morning hours of Oct. 30. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Capitol workers installed the new Speaker of the House sign at the entrance to the speaker's office suite in the Capitol in the early morning hours of Oct. 30. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Paul D. Ryan pledged in his bid for speaker to change the way the House does legislative business by pursuing conservative principles, more actively empowering committee chairmen and facilitating fuller debate on bills on the chamber floor. The Wisconsin Republican will get his first test in delivering on that pledge in his first full week on the job. The House starts working through a six-year highway bill Monday in anticipation of going to conference with the Senate. Bills funding surface transportation and infrastructure projects around the country have typically been poison pills for conservatives, who struggle with the federal government paying for programs that could potentially be bolstered by states. These members will surely look to Ryan to put his imprimatur of fiscal discipline on this highway bill iteration, and question his leadership if they think he is letting Congress spend beyond its means.  

Speaker Rise

A Two-Part Process Ryan’s challenge is only compounded by a process established in the days before his swearing-in. Leadership set up a scenario where House lawmakers get to offer amendments to a highway bill in two different ways. Members will be able to amend the six-year highway bill marked up in mid-October by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, when close to 150 amendments were considered. Lawmakers will also get to submit for floor consideration non-transportation related amendments to the Senate’s six-year highway bill. For the purposes of ultimately going to conference to combine the two chambers’ separate visions for highway legislation, the House will not consider any of the Senate’s highway-specific language. The Rules Committee meets Monday to set parameters for floor debate and Tuesday to decide which amendments get up-or-down votes. It has received at least 250 submissions. Also known as the “speaker’s committee,” the Rules panel will look to Ryan for guidance on which amendments will be allowed. Ryan will have to decide just how far he wants to go in living up to his pledge to open up the amendment process and let the House “work its will.”  

The Ex-Im Factor While the House is declining to take up Senate transportation provisions, it will consider the other chamber’s $45 billion in offsets to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent for three years. It will also pick up some of the Senate bill’s non-transportation related policy riders, including language reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank provision could be a major headache for Ryan, who opposes reopening the agency that finances the sales of goods overseas. In this way, Ryan is something of a hero for lawmakers on the far-right, who are vehemently opposed to reauthorizing what they call “corporate cronyism.” But Ryan has stressed he will be the kind of leader who champions the causes most important to the majority of his members — and when the House last week voted to revive the Ex-Im Bank using a rare procedural maneuver circumventing leadership’s blessing, just more than half of House Republicans joined with every House Democrat in voting “yes.” So if Ryan is confronted with legislation containing Ex-Im Bank reauthorization language, allowing it to be reported out of the House would be consistent with his vision of a more open legislative process.  

Where’s Shuster? Addressing members on the House floor Thursday following the speaker election, Ryan said his background as a two-time committee chairman would inform how bills move through the House under his leadership. “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. If you know the issue, you should write the bill. Open up the process. Let people participate,” Ryan said. That is already happening. Unlike in previous years, when GOP leaders took the reins in solving the Highway Trust Fund’s looming bankruptcy, this time the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s bill will be the subject of floor debate. Ryan is keeping Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., closely in the loop, aides said. Many point out that Shuster has a strong ally in Ryan, who understands perhaps more than other party leaders how highway legislation is crafted and paid for. Still, Shuster made it clear last week that this was ultimately the leadership’s game, telling CQ Roll Call to ask the higher ranks why it decided to finance the House’s highway bill with the Senate’s offsets. “It’s their strategy,” Shuster said. Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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