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Analysis: Missteps, Paul Ryan’s Had a Few

Reluctant speaker ceded the high ground, airbrushed history and napped on the job

Speaker Paul D. Ryan has had a few stumbles along the way. Bargaining for his job may have been the first. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan has had a few stumbles along the way. Bargaining for his job may have been the first. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

He says there are still eight months left in his speakership, but it’s probably not too soon to come up with a roster of Paul D. Ryan’s biggest hits and misses during his tenure in charge of the House. 

If the Wisconsin Republican finds his stature in congressional history diminished, decisions like these could be why:

Bargaining for the job

Ryan was undeniably reluctant to accept the draft of colleagues who insisted he was the only member who could unify Republicans in the aftermath of John A. Boehner’s forced exodus. When he finally agreed to seek the speakership, he did so with conditions, mainly about his schedule — and in return, hard-line conservatives imposed some conditions on him. One was that he repudiate his past efforts to seek a bipartisan grand bargain on immigration policy and instead move immigration legislation only if it was supported by a majority of the GOP. That preemptive limit on his power has probably denied Ryan what could have been the second-biggest achievement of his speakership.

Napping on the job

Ryan decided right away to become the first House speaker who sleeps in his office. Continuing to pitch a cot in his Longworth “district” suite when the House was in session sent an easy political message: His new stature would not distance him from dozens of other young GOP conservatives eager to signal they have not “gone Washington” even though their jobs are mainly in D.C.

But it also threatened to undermine his titular guardianship of the prerogatives, precedents and institutional reputation of the House of Representatives. Office dwellers must have an expansive view of both federal tax law, which makes employer-provided housing a taxable benefit, and House rules, which bar members from using any “official resources” for anything other than government business.

One of Ryan’s predecessors, Democrat Jim Wright of Texas, forbade members from crashing in their offices on the grounds it was degrading to the whole House. 

Airbrushing history

One of Ryan’s first, unpublicized acts as speaker was to have the official portrait of one of his predecessors taken off the wall just outside the House chamber and carted off to storage.

To be sure, the sordid past of J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois was just coming to light, and he would soon go to prison for banking crimes while trying to hide his sexual abuse of high school wrestlers he coached before entering politics.

But still, Hastert remains the longest serving GOP speaker ever (1999-2006), and the Capitol’s taxpayer-paid art collection displays paintings of virtually everyone who’s wielded the gavel for more than a few days. Ryan’s move raised questions about the propriety of one politician doling out ad hoc exceptions to a comprehensive, warts-and-all reflection of the congressional story.

Spurning candidate Trump

The speaker famously declined to endorse Trump for weeks after the candidate cinched the nomination, but his discomfort did not reach a breaking point until the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. Three days later, he convened a conference call with all GOP House members. “I am not going to defend Donald Trump — not now, not in the future,” he said. “I have real concerns with our nominee.”

“I am doing what I think is best for you, the members, not what’s best for me,” he added. His remarks were quickly leaked, infuriating the grass roots and complicating the political lives of plenty of members reliant on enthusiasm from the base.

Enabling president Trump

The new administration’s first order of business on the Hill was to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, and Ryan made plain from the start he would take an unusual posture for a self-described policy wonk: Not only would he overlook palpable White House mismanagement of its legislative strategies, but he would also defer to the new president’s vacillating desires to be either dominant player or passive observer in the process.

“There is no intrigue, palace intrigue, divisions between the principals,” Ryan told reporters in March 2017, echoing a theme of the campaign he’d once spurned: “We have a president who likes closing deals.” The approach would result in Ryan being whipsawed by Trump’s mixed signals on bill after bill.

Ceding his high ground

Ryan has executed his devil’s bargain in part by going extremely light on Trump’s polarizing rhetoric and personal excesses, which in turn has threatened his own ability to promote his longtime brand of racially inclusive, big tent conservative family values.

He declined several invitations to criticize Trump by name after the president blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, for example, although he said “white supremacy is repulsive” and “there can be no moral ambiguity.” And when Trump described Haiti and the nations of Africa as “shithole” countries in January, Ryan confined himself to labeling the slur “very unfortunate, unhelpful.”

Backing McCarthy

Two days in April after announcing he would not seek re-election, Ryan endorsed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to succeed him as speaker and predicted a “seamless transition.” But those statements have in no way sealed the Californian’s prospects to lead the House GOP after the election.

On the contrary, Ryan’s endorsement has only seemed to embolden the confrontational conservatives of the Freedom Caucus, who are now promoting the candidacy of their own Jim Jordan of Ohio. That Ryan, the same man members begged to take the job just three years ago, couldn’t play kingmaker is another sign of his tenuous hold on power.

It also stands in contrast to 32 years ago, when Jim Wright became a lock to move up from majority leader as soon as he was tapped by Speaker Tip O’Neill, the last person to relinquish the House top job at the time of an unforced retirement.

Watch: The Prayer That Might Have Landed House Chaplain in Hot Water

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Firing Conroy

The speaker has created as much bipartisan ill will as confusion with his decision to fire the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, the House chaplain since 2011. Conroy, a Jesuit who’s only the second Roman Catholic priest to hold the position, says he’s not sure why the lame-duck speaker asked him to go.

[What Is a House Chaplain and What Do They Do?]

Democrats and a few Republicans who are Catholic (40 percent of the House) speculate it’s because Conroy’s invocations to open daily House sessions have irked GOP leaders for being tinged with a liberal theology. (“May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws,” he prayed in December.)

Whatever the reason, the dismissal has infused the House with the sort of unforced tensions Ryan was once seen as adept at diffusing.

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