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How Ryan and Pelosi Are Kicking Themselves to the Curb (Sort Of)

Removing modest perks for ex-speakers is good politics but enfeebles the speakership

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Paul D. Ryan are of one mind when it comes to post-speaker perks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Paul D. Ryan are of one mind when it comes to post-speaker perks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Incredible Shrinking Speakership is going to get just a little bit smaller.

The Constitution makes speakers unassailable as presiding officer in the House. Chamber rules vest the job with plenty of responsibility. And federal law places them second in the line of presidential succession.

All their political power, though, ultimately comes from their ability to read the room. And each speaker of the past two decades has gone from initial strength to crippling limitation when it comes to comprehending and then capitalizing on the desires of the other 434 members in the House.

They have all paid the price in some measurable way. Now their successors will as well, thanks to a symbolic slap at the speakership’s status that’s been blessed by both current House members who’ve held the job: Republican Paul D. Ryan, the lame-duck incumbent, and Nancy Pelosi, his most recent Democratic predecessor and potential successor.

Once they’re gone from Congress, they will be denied a modest package of perks that retired House speakers for nearly half a century had been awarded for as long as five years.

The House Appropriations Committee was planning to pare back the duration of the benefits to one year, but they voted to do away with them altogether Tuesday after both Ryan and Pelosi signaled that would be fine by them.

There’s virtually no chance the full House or Senate will want to revisit the issue. And the Trump administration, deviating from the separation-of-powers precedent that Congress decides its own budget without presidential meddling, is taking an intense early interest in whittling every possible penny from Hill spending.

In appropriated funds, the savings are relative peanuts. In political payoff, the benefit might be decent. In institutional diminution, the consequence will be lasting.

Each House leader has an easy-to-intuit rationale for making this feint toward asceticism.

Ryan will leave Congress at age 48, with several decades ahead for a highly lucrative career and to consider returning to public life. He won’t need any taxpayer-funded creature comforts in the business world, and as a free-market conservative he wouldn’t be helped in some future campaign by a “government subsidized” label affixed to his résumé.

Pelosi, of course, is hoping to return to the speakership next year. Her effort to win over skeptics among Democratic candidates and incumbents, who view her nationally polarizing leadership as an immediate liability if the party reclaims the House, can only be helped by such a gesture of it’s-not-about-me humility. Besides, she’s among the richest House members and won’t need federal support for an easygoing retirement lifestyle.

Winding down

Currently, when speakers end their House service they are entitled to one moderately tricked-out office anywhere in the country, a decent expense account, a handful of staffers and continuation of their “franking” privileges — the ability to send snail mail carrying their signature instead of a stamp. The benefits were established in 1970 when 79-year-old John W. McCormack became the first Democratic speaker to retire from the House since before World War II. (The other two had died in office.)

The thinking then was that, as constitutional officers, retired speakers were entitled to a few years’ treatment — albeit on a vastly smaller scale — similar to former presidents as they wind down their public lives and take up mantles as elder statesmen.

That notion seems naive and quaint by the standards of today, when the profound unpopularity of Congress means political hazards for members willing to defend the institution where they work. The widely adopted alternative course is to chastise the historic roots of the Capitol’s culture and deny themselves things that might underscore their stature as policymakers — from a decade’s worth of cost-of-living pay raises to office deliveries of the Congressional Record.

Such tangible self-deprivation has been echoed by routinized efforts in the rank-and-file to knock their leadership down a peg — and never more often, in the past two decades, than the person in the speaker’s chair.

Newt Gingrich asserted extraordinary sway over the legislative machinery as the first GOP speaker in four decades, then got pushed out by the very folks he’d ushered into power after a single dispiriting election. J. Dennis Hastert became the longest-serving Republican speaker only because he reacted to challenges to his authority by ceding power to the committee chairmen. His successor John A. Boehner got effectively neutralized by just a couple of dozen diehard conservative combatants in his ranks.

A similar fate constantly threatened to befall Ryan, whose speakership is so weakened that he had to publicly capitulate to demands that he rehire the House chaplain. And now Pelosi is confronted with the possibility that such factionalism among Democrats would not permit a reprise of her strong speakership style a decade ago.

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

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Challenging the authority and stature of the speaker, in other words, is a once unforgivable Capitol Hill sin that in recent years has evolved into behavior that is not just tolerated but can actually advance a lawmaker’s career.

Taking away the special treatment for their former political overlords — and portraying the move as an overdue bit of drainage for the Hill’s own part of the swamp — will doubtless get boasted about with chest-thumping sincerity at town meetings and campaign rallies across the country this campaign season.

But, as is so often the case, the financial facts and the symbolism don’t really align.

Congress spent a little more than $200,000 on Boehner’s ex-speakership in the year between when he resigned his Ohio House seat in 2015 and when he joined Squire Patton Boggs. (At that point he gave up his official hideaway in the Longworth Building and took most of the staffers who had worked there with him to the lobbying and law firm.)

Hastert, by contrast, kept a federally funded office operating in his hometown in the exurbs of Chicago for the full allowable five years — at a total cost above $1.5 million — even though he started as a lobbyist for Dickstein Shapiro a year after he left the House in 2007. (The perks, in other words, expired several years before the revelations he sexually abused high school wrestlers he coached before launching his political career.)

The maximum cost of the sinecure, in other words, was almost identical to the retail price of a single Tomahawk missile — 66 of which were launched by the Navy into Syria over the course of a couple of hours last month in retaliation for its most recent use of chemical weapons.

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