Many people believe that Paul Ryan wants to be president someday. So why wouldn’t he aim first to become House speaker, that esteemed post second-in-line for the White House?
The reason is simple: in this House with its Republican majority, the job stinks, experts said. In the current environment, what was once a role with substantial prestige and authority has become a slog of epic proportions — a merciless, unstable grind navigating crises, tamping down rebellions and trying, often in vain, to preserve the dignity of the House as an institution.
“This ought to be something that everyone should aspire to in the way people aspire to be president,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “But it’s grown into an enormous headache, almost like a pit where if you throw yourself into it, you know that you will be eaten alive and spit out.”
Ryan appears to be the consensus pick to replace Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) abruptly withdrew from the running last Thursday. But Ryan has repeatedly declined pleas to enter the race, saying he prefers his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship. His position might be weakening, under serious pressure from his colleagues, but just by a bit. Now he’s spending the recess week considering his options back in Janesville, Wis., his hometown.
To academics, it says something that Ryan, a rising star who was Republicans’ nominee for vice president, would prefer to lead a tax committee rather than the full House.
“The speaker’s really in a position now where he can’t get anything done,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author with Ornstein of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” a 2012 book on congressional dysfunction. “Everything about today’s Republican party has made the job exceedingly difficult.”
A House speaker is ordered in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and the position became second in the presidential line of succession in 1947. Recent history is filled with examples of speakers playing a significant role in fierce policy debates. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) fought with President Clinton over government spending, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) vocally opposed the Iraq war begun under President George W. Bush.
But they’ve also become bogeymen in political campaigns, with Democrats running against Gingrich — who presided over the 1995 and 1996 government shutdown — and Republicans slamming Pelosi. Candidates for the House are often posed a version of the question: would you support Pelosi or Boehner for speaker? And then they’re bludgeoned with the answer.
While the speaker can still set the tone and agenda for his party, Boehner’s legacy seems like it will be defined by something different: the succession of near-shutdowns (and one real one), and his inability to strike a grand budget bargain with President Obama, given his powerlessness over a small right-wing faction now known as the House Freedom Caucus. Having made Boehner speaker in 2010, these conservatives also drew hard limits on his leadership and ultimately orchestrated his downfall.
Boehner tried repeatedly to punish disobedient members by removing them from key committees, as well as other moves, but that only seemed to empower his foes. This tea-party wing, supported amply by outside groups, seemed to view Boehner with more pity than fear.
“Leaders who are pitied are not likely to have the personal authority necessary to exercise power,” Catholic University Associate Professor Matthew Green wrote of Boehner in late September.
Scholars draw a contrast with Pelosi, who was speaker from 2007 to 2011 and has been called one of the most effective leaders in modern congressional history.
“You have to build a sense of trust and personal loyalty,” said Green, who has written extensively on the evolution of the role of speaker. “That’s exactly what Pelosi did. It’s not easy … It’s not as if Democrats naturally agree on anything. Pelosi just did a very good job of tampering defections early on.”
So it’s not exactly that the prestige of the speakership has declined, per se, according to experts. But as party loyalty diminishes in an age of social media and members turn to cable news to bring their messages directly to voters, the speaker’s ability to herd his pack is checked.
For Ryan, father of three young kids, there’s another unappealing aspect of the job. The speakership is a more-than-full-time role, requiring immense travel and fundraising, especially with 2016 nearing. Compared to his current routine, which includes weekends at home and an ability to avoid the spotlight, taking the reins would increase his workload substantially.
The fact he’s weighing these concerns is a reminder that Ryan, 45, is of a different mindset than the congressional leaders who came before him.
Of course, there are those who believe filling the House’s leadership vacuum should be more important to Ryan. Whether their arguments can persuade him is yet to be seen.
“It’s a terrible responsibility when you’ve got a young family, but someone should say to Paul Ryan: ‘The institution of the House needs your leadership.’ Sometimes the burden of leadership falls on you when you’re not seeking it,” said former Republican majority leader and ex-FreedomWorks President Dick Armey.
Previous speakers warned with considerable foresight about the position losing its natural authority. Thomas Brackett Reed, a Maine Republican who held the gavel starting in 1889, wrote that only a “legacy of disorder and bad government” can come from attacks on the speakership because the speaker is an “embodiment of the House, its power and dignity.”
Who would want to embody this House, anyway?
David Weigel contributed to this report.