House Republicans’ Attempt to Remove Paul Ryan Would Backfire

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There are growing doubts among Republicans about whether House Speaker Paul Ryan will be able to serve until the end of the year. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy may be involved in an effort to oust him. I’m skeptical anything will happen.

Sure, House Republicans are upset with how things are going. They have virtually no legislative agenda, and after the failed attempt to pass the farm bill last week, they can’t even manage to get through the few easy must-pass items remaining. To make matters worse, their majority is in serious danger in the November midterms. It’s easy to see why they would want to take it out on their leader, who will retire at the end of this session anyway. 

One impediment to any plot to get rid of him prematurely has to do with mechanics of electing a speaker. For all other leadership posts in the House and the Senate, the party meets and votes and whoever gets a majority wins. The speaker, however, also needs to win a vote in the whole House. Traditionally, that’s been a straight party vote, with the majority party unanimously supporting the candidate who won in the party caucus. But defections have become more common in recent years. 

For McCarthy, Ryan’s would-be replacement, the prospect of moving up early has advantages and some real drawbacks. 

On the plus side, McCarthy still appears to be unopposed. If that remains so, he would presumably win the speakership now and then be almost certain to stay in the job for the next Congress. Waiting for six months until the Republicans caucus after the election would give more time for a challenger to emerge. If Republicans get walloped in November, it’s possible McCarthy and the rest of the leadership would wind up taking the blame.

Waiting could have benefits. If Republicans are destined to lose their majority anyway, then McCarthy would no longer need to win the floor vote for speaker in January; he would only have to win a majority of the Republican conference when the party’s lawmakers meet after the election. He also wouldn’t have to bear the responsibility of getting appropriations bills passed for the fiscal year beginning in October. It’s even possible that Ryan, if given a few more months, could find some way to defuse difficult partisan conflicts on immigration and other issues, the way John Boehner helped pass some bills between the time he announced his retirement and when he actually turned over the gavel. 

For most Republicans in and out of the House, an early speaker election is a headache. It’s all about the downside risk: What if the party’s lawmakers have difficulty finding a replacement? That’s what happened when Boehner resigned, and there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again. Only this time the party would be in very public disarray just before midterm elections. 

Is there any benefit to a rapid change? Not really. As a lame duck, Ryan may have lost some of the influence he may have once had, but there’s no reason to believe McCarthy would have the heft to immediately get members to do things they don’t want to do. When Boehner stepped down, Ryan had a window of leverage over his party (which he failed to take advantage of) because without him Republicans believed they would be staring into the abyss. But there’s little to suggest that House Republicans see McCarthy  as indispensable.

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney indicated over the weekend that he supports the idea of an extra speaker floor vote because it would force Democrats to back the unpopular House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, which would give Republicans a strong talking point in the midterms. That strategy has no chance of working because very few Democratic incumbents are currently in any trouble, and it’s unlikely that any single vote would make much of a difference. At any rate, Democrats already took a Pelosi vote last January, so it’s implausible that a second one would make any difference.

So who wins if Ryan exits early? The 40 or so radicals in the House Freedom Caucus, who would get outsize influence by threatening to go against their party’s leader in the floor vote and are happy to have as many of these votes scheduled as possible. Especially since the possibility of a Democratic majority in 2019 would deprive them of that leverage. It’s hard to tell from the news coverage, but I suspect they, and not McCarthy or mainstream Republicans, are behind any momentum for early action. 

In any case, it’s likely all of this will fizzle out and Ryan will be around for the lame-duck session after the elections. But I’d never rule out the possibility that House Republicans make a foolish choice. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.