Paul Ryan is all but guaranteed to become the 62nd Speaker of the House next week, filling the vacuum left by John Boehner’s abdication and the failure of his heir apparent, Kevin McCarthy, to garner the full support of the Republican conference.
The Ways & Means chair and 2012 vice presidential nominee comes in as a unifying force for the fractured GOP. And the conditions he placed on the acceptance of the job will empower him to better lead House Republicans, fixing many of the challenges Boehner faced.
But Ryan’s honeymoon will be short. He faces short-term and long-term challenges in governing and legislating. Here are Ryan’s four biggest challenges, ranking by immediacy.
- Clearing the deck: Congress has some pressing issues pending. Lawmakers need to get through an increase in the debt ceiling before Nov. 3, though it’s possible that could pass Congress next week before Ryan takes office. But Congress also must pass government funding for the next year before it shuts down on Dec. 11 and money for transportation infrastructure programs, which run dry at the end of the month. Given the truncated timelines, the House will have to accept Senate compromises hammered out with Republicans, bills that are never popular with the conservative Freedom Caucus. More likely than not, Ryan will have to break the so-called Hastert rule and rely on Democratic votes to pass these bills. Once they’re done, though, the legislative decks will be pretty much cleared of controversial measures until after the 2016 election, giving Ryan some much-needed breathing room to get his House in order.
- Getting the House in order: Some of Ryan’s assurances to the Freedom Caucus include changing House rules to decentralize some of the Speaker’s power. There’s an array of ideas on the table and any rules changes will have to be passed by the full House as Congress passes its organizing rules at the beginning of each session and amending them requires a floor vote. One of Ryan’s conditions: doing away with the motion to vacate the chair, essentially a no confidence vote that the Freedom Caucus used to force Boehner from his post. The Freedom Caucus wants changes on who gets appointed to the powerful Steering Committee, which makes committee assignments and sets legislative priorities. They also want each committee to directly elect chairs, rather than have them appointed by the Speaker. Ryan says he’s open to any ideas, but the conference must vote as a whole on any changes—meaning a majority of Republicans must support each motion. Odds are, most Republicans won’t want to tie Ryan’s hands so early in his tenure, so it’s not clear how many rules changes will get through.
- Legislating: Once the decks are cleared, there are only a few bills left in what will be an extended lame duck session: the annual defense reauthorization act, criminal justice reform and the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. All have bipartisan support and likely to pass. But one of the demands the conference has been fairly unified on is a return to regular order. Ryan will have the opportunity on all three to do exactly that: empower the committee process and take the time to have hearings and mark ups. That would generally get the House back to legislating the way it was meant to, rather than passing leader-authored measures forced through in a matter of days or hours lest some catastrophe occur such as a default on the nation’s debt or a government shutdown. If Ryan can successfully steward a return to regular order, it could make a big difference in 2017 when the House will again be faced with more controversial measures.
- Vision: Ryan has said he wants to be a different kind of Speaker, one less caught up with day-to-day management—and fundraising—and more concerned articulating a direction and a vision for the party. Ryan has always been an ideas guy—it’s why Mitt Romney picked him to be his running mate, and his Road Map to solvency is the fiscal conservative bible. At a time when the GOP has become the Party of No, Ryan wants to lay out legislative alternatives and priorities to counteract that image. This will be a long-term project, one that could help unify a conference where many members feel left out of the process. Will any of the legislation be signed into law? That will depend on who wins the 2016 election, but just the process and focus could be positive.
House Speaker has been a fairly miserable job for the last 4.5 years and it’s telling that Ryan actively did not want the role. What he makes of it will not only define his career—and any aspirations to higher office—but the fight for the soul of the Republican Party.
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