Speaker of the House

(Bloomberg) -- The majesty of the office of speaker of the House of Representatives is sanctified by the U.S. Constitution, where it’s the first position named, even before the presidency. The speaker is second in line to the White House, after the vice president. Historical giants have occupied the chair, including some who have been both revered and resented as dictators. In recent years, the speaker’s been neither exalted nor feared nor able to command his own party. First, Speaker John A. Boehner resigned from Congress in October 2015, after he was unable to control the conservative wing of his House Republican caucus. Now his successor, Paul Ryan, has announced that he won’t seek re-election. Even with the House, Senate and presidency all in his party’s hands, it’s also been tough for him to wrangle his fractious Republican conference. This has many wondering whether anyone can make the speaker’s office a potent force again.

The Situation

Ryan’s April 11 announcement followed a series of rough legislative battles. Republicans had been calling for an end of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, since it was enacted in 2010. The House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three dozen conservative Republican lawmakers, wanted to simply repeal the ACA; they wouldn’t compromise on a replacement dubbed “Obamacare light.” Ryan suffered embarrassing setbacks before he was barely able to push a plan to repeal and partly replace the ACA through the House in May 2017. A number of Senate Republicans opposed the plan, and a revised repeal effort collapsed in that chamber. Ryan was able to pass a tax overhaul in December that cut corporate and personal taxes, but it will add more than $1 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade, which rankled fiscal conservatives. In March 2018, the Ryan compromised with Democrats to pass a spending bill that didn’t include domestic spending cuts President Donald Trump had requested and just $1.6 billion for border security, a fraction of the $25 billion that Trump wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump was so unhappy that he threatened to veto the bill, though he did end up signing it. In 2016, Ryan infuriated many in his party by not supporting Trump right after he clinched the Republican nomination. President-elect Trump and Ryan met in a show of unity, which was enough to tamp down talk of rebellion and assure his re-election as speaker in January 2017.

The Background

Speakers were unimportant figures until Henry Clay of Kentucky used the post to lay out a national agenda, raising the stature of the office and the House. As the party system strengthened, the speaker took on an ever-larger role. It reached a peak under Joseph Cannon of Illinois, known to friends as “Uncle Joe” and to others as “Czar Cannon,” whose authoritarian rule prompted a bipartisan revolt in 1910. The longest-serving speaker was Sam Rayburn, a Texas Democrat who described himself as relying on “persuasion and kindness,” but who also had plenty of pork to hand out — or withhold. The House voted in 2010 to swear off such earmarks, as they were known. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, encouraged the move as the Tea Party surged before the 2010 elections, and became speaker with the support of the House’s new conservative members. But with so many of the office’s traditional tools gone, even his effort to rebuke some obstreperous members by bouncing them from choice committee assignments backfired, leading to an embarrassing effort to block his re-election as speaker in January 2013. While Boehner managed to win a third term, he broke with his caucus on some deals. He won passage of a budget agreement in 2013 that hard-liners thought had too much spending. Then he agreed to an increase in the federal debt ceiling in 2014, passed almost entirely with Democratic votes. Facing threats from conservatives who were discussing a no-confidence vote on his leadership, Boehner told his fellow Republicans he would resign in September 2015. Ryan, the former chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means and former vice presidential candidate, was then elected as the 54th House speaker in October 2015. A Wisconsin Republican, Ryan only agreed to run for the job after getting support from some right-wing conservatives.

The Argument

For years there’s been a struggle between “establishment” Republicans, who’ve made a career of politics and believe compromise is needed to get things done, and hard-liners, like the Freedom Caucus, who have been angry that the Republican leadership hasn’t done more to slash federal spending. Trump’s ideas for more spending on infrastructure and the wall along the Mexican border, combined with his vows to protect entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare will make it that much harder to pull spending back. Meanwhile, polls show that voters are increasingly unhappy with Trump and Congressional Republicans, raising the odds that the Democrats will be in the majority for the election of the next speaker in January 2019. 

The Reference Shelf

  • A website of the U.K. Parliament traces the role of the speaker back to the appointment of Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377. (Seven of his successors were beheaded.)
  • Portrait of Speaker Joe Cannon adorning the first issue of Time magazine, dated March 3, 1923.
  • A New York Times Magazine article on the death of the 2011 debt deal between Boehner and President Barack Obama.
  • Politico profile of Boehner: “The Prisoner of Capitol Hill.”

First published Dec.

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