House Speaker Paul D. Ryan was in a great mood Thursday.
Addressing reporters after the House passed a massive transportation bill that involved votes on more than 100 amendments, Ryan (R-Wis.) could boast that he was making good on pledges to reform the House by opening up the legislative process after years of tight control by former speaker John A. Boehner.
“It’s a glimpse of how we should be doing the people’s business,” Ryan said, pledging to continue the open process as Congress approaches a Dec. 11 government funding deadline.
It’s a theme that Ryan has stressed repeatedly in his first week as speaker: Obey “regular order,” follow the rules, and let the House work its will.
That refrain should ring a bell to anyone familiar with the words of another House speaker: John Boehner.
A few months before he was elected speaker in January 2011, Boehner (R-Ohio) gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on what ailed the House and how he planned on going about fixing it.
“The institution does not function, does not deliberate, and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people,” he said. “From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the very lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent. Leaders overreach because the rules allow them to. Legislators duck their responsibilities because the rules help them to. And when the rules don’t suit the majority’s purposes, they are just ignored.”
Compare those remarks to Ryan’s inaugural address as speaker: “The House is broken. We are not solving problems. We are adding to them,” he said, adding: “We are the body closest to the people. … But we do not echo the people. We represent them. We are supposed to study up and do the homework that they cannot do. So when we do not follow regular order — when we rush to pass bills a lot of us do not understand — we are not doing our job. Only a fully functioning House can truly represent the people.”
Boehner in 2010 lamented a “cycle of gridlock,” where Democrats forced Republicans to use procedural tactics to get their points across, then Democrats in turn cracked down on those tactics: “Instead of clamping down even further, it’s my view that we should open things up and let the battle of ideas help break down the scar tissue between the two parties. Yes, we will still have disagreements. But let’s have them out in the open. Yes, we will still try to outmaneuver each other. But let’s make it a fair fight.”
And here’s Ryan last Thursday: “We need to let every member contribute — not once they have earned their stripes, but right now. … Open up the process. Let people participate. And they might change their tune. A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith. Instead of trying to stop the majority, they might try to become the majority.”
Boehner pledged in 2010 to give power amassed by leadership back to committees: “The truth is, much of the work of committees has been co-opted by the leadership. In too many instances, we no longer have legislators; we just have voters. In my view, if we want to make legislators legislate again, then we need to empower them at the committee level. If members were more engaged in their committee work, they would be more invested in the final products that come to the floor.”
Ryan said much the same last week: “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. If you know the issue, you should write the bill.”
And just as Ryan touched off his speakership with an amendment “vote-o-rama,” so did Boehner: During the course of passing an omnibus spending bill in February 2011, the House voted on 100 amendments — including many from newly elected tea party freshmen. Years later, those members would be at the vanguard of disenchantment with Boehner, accusing him of sidelining the rank-and-file in a quest to centralize power in the speaker’s chair.
All of this is not to show that Ryan is a Boehner clone who is destined for the same pitfalls that brought his predecessor low. Boehner made good on a host of promises he made early on — including an end to spending earmarks, the early posting of bills online and a curtailing of lightweight ceremonial bills.
But it does show that the best intentions on Capitol Hill tend to get caught up in the reality of governing — and that Ryan had very good reasons for resisting calls to enter House leadership for so long.
Boehner himself presaged his fate in that 2010 speech. He did not know at the time that he would become the second speaker ever to be threatened with removal by a member of his own party — a “motion to vacate the chair,” as it’s known.
He mentioned the last man subject to such a motion: Republican Speaker Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois, who survived the vote, only to see Republicans lose their majority a few months later.
“Exactly one hundred years ago, Uncle Joe Cannon — who ruled the House with an iron fist — faced a revolt from insurgent Republicans and Democrats,” Boehner told his audience. “Even though his fall from power was imminent, Speaker Cannon refused to resign, calling it a ‘confession of weakness or mistake or an apology.’ That right there was Cannon’s mistake. That gavel, those powers — they weren’t his to use as a personal guard or shield. They were given to him to guard and shield the interests of the American people.”
Threatened with his own imminent ouster, Boehner stepped down, clearing the way for Ryan. But will Ryan be better equipped to wield that gavel? Amendment votes may only get him so far.
Paul Kane contributed to this post.