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Paul Ryan Runs Through the Tape as Lame-Duck Congress Limps to Finish Line

Wisconsin Republican departs on own terms, with share of wins and losses

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., seen here Wednesday at the Library of Congress, says President Donald Trump is leaving Congress on his own terms, a rarity for a speaker. (Nathan Ouellette/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., seen here Wednesday at the Library of Congress, says President Donald Trump is leaving Congress on his own terms, a rarity for a speaker. (Nathan Ouellette/CQ Roll Call)

Paul D. Ryan is leaving his time as speaker of the House where he started it: in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, in a speech outlining his principles and showcasing his personality, and during a time that encapsulates the challenges any serious lawmaker faces.

“I leave here as convinced as I was at the start that we face no challenge which cannot be overcome by putting pen to paper on sound policy. By addressing head-on the problems of the day,” the Wisconsin Republican said on Wednesday amid colleagues and assorted allies and dignitaries across the street from the Capitol. “The state of politics these days, though, is another question, and frankly one I don’t have an answer for,” he added, emphasizing that re-engaging in the process, with humility and an exchange of ideas, as unlikely as that might sound today, was the way back to reclaiming public service’s luster and dignity. 

“Invest in the process,” he said. 

The location of such events sends an important signal. The Library of Congress is not just Congress’ but the country’s and the world’s repository of culture, knowledge and history. Ryan is certainly aware that few people ascend to the title of speaker, in line to be president, leader of the branch of government the Founding Fathers elevated by delineating its responsibilities with the first article of the Constitution. A speech here, in a building named after Thomas Jefferson, is one seeking elevation; it will go down in the history books. 

When Ryan announced his retirement in April, he and his team emphasized he would be “running through the tape,” lending the House some institutional stability during the midterm election year by serving out his term.

He faced questions about whether he should step aside sooner, letting his Republican colleagues hash out the question of their next leader before his departure. But the speaker stayed the course. 

Speakers rarely leave office under their own power. They lose majorities (Nancy Pelosi, J. Dennis Hastert), they lose their own election (Thomas S. Foley), they quit before their term is up (Newt Gingrich, John A. Boehner.) In short, they rarely ride gracefully into the sunset.

Ryan took the speakership somewhat reluctantly in December 2015, after Boehner abruptly said he’d had it with the place, tired of the power plays from antagonists like the House Freedom Caucus, and after Ryan’s close ally Kevin McCarthy couldn’t lock down enough support for his own speakership bid. 

“As everyone here knows, I never wanted to become speaker. I was just a policy guy. And I like to think I still am,” the former chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means committees said. But he did take the job, and he continued to pursue his policy goals. 

So Ryan is going out on his own terms, with a modicum of dignity, if not an atmosphere of loss. With last year’s passage of the tax overhaul, he secured a policy win on one of the issues that animated his career, something he touted with a six-part victory lap video series this week. A criminal justice overhaul is steaming toward enactment in the last days of the 115th Congress. But he also presided over the loss of 40 GOP House seats and with it the majority. 

“You accept a temporary trust, to be a steward of the greatest legislative body in the world. It is an awesome thing. Again, the people have spoken, and soon the House will become the care of a new majority, and what I know will be a spirited Republican minority. I wish our next leaders well,” Ryan said.

His successor as leader of House Republicans, McCarthy, vouched for his friend’s character. “We have been through a lot together, and there were plenty of moments that tested our will. It was in those moments that Paul’s character shone through most clearly,” the California Republican said in a statement. 

A frequent antagonist, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., similarly said Ryan was a man of integrity, even as he pushed back on his policies. 

“In terms of Mr. Ryan’s legacy, I think Paul Ryan has decent instincts. But I have disagreed with Mr. Ryan on his fiscal policy for a long time. Although we did have some agreement on how important the budget deficit was to deal with. But this Congress has been one of the most closed congresses in history and one of the most fiscally irresponsible congresses in history — if not the most fiscally irresponsible. I think that because he was speaker during the course of those actions, that will be part of his legacy,” Hoyer said a couple of hours before Ryan’s speech. 

The place and timing of Ryan’s farewell speech were reminders of the circumstances of his arrival in the speaker’s office — in a chaotic organizational time for Republicans as the steady Boehner threw up his hands and split just months before Donald Trump effectively took control of the party — and his departure, when his otherwise carefully laid plans were sidelined by circumstances beyond his control — the funeral of President George H.W. Bush — and amid yet another lame-duck Congress struggling to wrap up its business and punting basic tasks into the next year, like government funding. 

Late last month, the speaker set out a series of events to mark his imminent retirement: receiving the Defense Department’s Distinguished Public Service Award on Nov. 28 at the Pentagon; a final speech on the House floor the next day emphasizing his district in Wisconsin, followed by the unveiling of his portrait as Budget Committee chairman; a speech in New York at the December 3 Hudson Institute gala, capped with a farewell address on December 5 at the Library of Congress, a bookend to the speech that started his speakership in 2015.

The death on Nov. 30 of Bush and the subsequent funeral in Washington scrambled the latter part of the schedule, and the speaker’s team secured a later date, Dec. 19, for his goodbye at the Library. 

Ryan has always harkened back to his Midwestern roots, mixing an aw-shucks persona with think-tank bona fides. He brandished that identity throughout Wednesday’s speech, teasing South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy for his always evolving hairstyle, thanking his 2012 presidential running mate, Utah Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, as the fresh-faced new guy, saying the debt and immigration system needed to be fixed, and making one last plea for civility, even among visceral disagreements and all-too-human shortcomings. 

“We are conditioned to recognize that we are imperfect, but we are called to do better,” Ryan said. 

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.