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3 Ways In Which the House Chaplain Controversy May Continue

Lawmakers still want answers about the speaker’s decision to fire Rev. Patrick J. Conroy

House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy is staying is position but lawmakers are still questioning why he was asked to leave in the first place. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy is staying is position but lawmakers are still questioning why he was asked to leave in the first place. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy is getting to stay in his position, but that doesn’t mean the controversy surrounding Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s initial decision to fire him is going away. 

Several lawmakers are still questioning what influenced the Wisconsin Republican to make his call and how to prevent future speakers from unilaterally seeking to remove the House chaplain. 

“Many distressing questions must still be answered about the motivations behind Father Conroy’s unwarranted and unjust dismissal,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

Conroy on Thursday sent a letter to Ryan rescinding his resignation — provided initially at the speaker’s request — and Ryan accepted it. That meant lawmakers who were drafting legislation to keep Conroy in his post didn’t need to move forward, but there are still actions that members frustrated over the whole debacle are considering. 

Here’s a look at possible moves lawmakers might pursue:

Select committee 

Before the House left town for a one-week recess, Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley attempted to form a select committee to look into the circumstances of Conroy’s firing. The New Yorker offered a privileged resolution to form the panel, but Republicans used a motion to table to reject it. 

Watch: House Erupts Over Chaplain Resignation

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Crowley suggested in a statement Thursday that while he was glad Conroy would remain chaplain, he may still push for the select committee. 

“Because there are conflicting reports and questions left unanswered, we need a full understanding of what happened,” the New York Democrat said. “This is why I’ve called for a select committee to lead an inquiry into the events leading up to his abrupt dismissal. I hope Republicans will join Democrats to help us get the facts and ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.” 

If Crowley were to try another privileged resolution to set up the panel, he would have to convince a few dozen Republicans for it to be successful. Only two GOP members, Reps. Tom Reed of New York and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, joined the Democrats on the previous vote. Meehan resigned from the House later that day. 

One Republican who would likely back a select committee is North Carolina Rep. Walter B. Jones. He was not present for the previous vote but said he would have supported Crowley’s resolution.

Even with Conroy back in his position, Jones said there are still questions that need to be answered.

“To a certain degree, the members of the House deserve some answers. But certainly the chaplain does,” he said. 

Jones said it was still unclear whether the push for Conroy’s resignation was related to a prayer he gave on the floor in November that alluded to the GOP tax bill or solely about concerns Ryan was hearing from members. Jones called it a “strange situation” that was poorly handled and said Ryan should clarify the issues he had with Conroy.

“A select committee is probably a good idea for this reason,” he said. “We might determine how better we can protect the chaplains in the future.”

Rules change

One of the questions some members raised after learning of Conroy’s forced resignation is whether the speaker had the ability to make that decision on his own. 

The House rules do not specify a process for removing the chaplain, but they do say that, as an officer of the House, the chaplain is elected at the beginning of each Congress to “continue in office until their successors are chosen and qualified.”

Many members believe that for Ryan to seek to remove the chaplain in the middle of the two-year congressional term, he needed to either provide cause or call a vote of the full House. Requesting Conroy’s resignation seemed to get around such procedural hang-ups, but members were prepared to challenge his decision. 

Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur had been working on a privileged resolution to rescind Conroy’s resignation and reinstate him as chaplain through the end of the year. She had also been discussing the constitutionality of Ryan’s decision with outside lawyers. 

Kaptur said before drafting the resolution that she called Conroy to ask if he wanted to leave the House and to see if he would urge her not to pursue legislation.

“And he said, ‘I do not want to leave the House,’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Thank you very much, that’s all I need to know.’”

The measure Kaptur was drafting with bipartisan input would also have examined “what type of proceeding could one initiate so that fairness and justice is provided to every officer of the House,” she said.

Although Kaptur’s first goal of reinstating Conroy has been achieved without legislation, she might still pursue the need to provide a fair process for considering the removal of any officer of the House.

“There should be a formal process so every person is afforded [due process],” she said. “You wouldn’t do this to a criminal who is charged with something. Why would you do this to an officer of the House?”

Kaptur said she wants to discuss the matter with the members who were working on the legislation with her before she decides whether to move forward with a resolution to change the rules now.

Typically, House rules are amended at the start of each new Congress. With Conroy staying on until at least then, a potential rule change could wait.

Jones said he supports establishing a process for the future that would require the speaker to solicit feedback from members before deciding to remove a chaplain. In the case of Conroy, Jones said he never heard any complaints about the priest. 

“The speaker at the time should have asked, ‘Are you pleased with service of our chaplain, yes or no?’” he said.

Search committee

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly was involved in the discussions about legislation to keep the chaplain in his post. The Virginia Democrat said some Republicans were involved in the plans but declined to name them, saying he wanted them to keep talking to him.

As part of his discussions with colleagues, Connolly sought to identify a new use for the bipartisan search committee that Ryan had begun to set up to make recommendations for Conroy’s replacement. He suggested that the panel could move forward but with a new goal of identifying the chaplain for the next Congress. 

“I think it continues in a more harmonious way if we honor Father Conroy’s letter today and allow him to rescind,” Connolly said in an interview Thursday before Ryan announced he would accept Conroy’s letter. 

Connolly said Conroy could be considered among other candidates and that the search committee would make recommendations to the new speaker. (Ryan is retiring, so regardless of which party holds the majority after the midterms, there will be a new speaker.)

Leadership aides in both parties did not know yet whether the search committee, which had yet to be formally announced, would continue under a new timeline or be disbanded. 

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