HOUSE REPUBLICANS nominated Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to serve as the next speaker Wednesday afternoon, setting up a Thursday floor vote that should make his ascent official. We wish him luck. Mr. Ryan promised last week that his speakership would bring “real reform.” Every American should hope he succeeds in establishing a governing majority that acts on issues Congress has let fester for years — and that the rules changes he demands will enable him to act with less fear of Freedom Caucus conservatives than outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Yet he faces several grave challenges, some self-imposed. Top among them is that Mr. Ryan promised hard-right members of Congress that he would respect the informal “Hastert Rule,” which requires that a majority of the majority party in the House favor a bill for it to get a floor vote. Adherence to the rule unwisely blocks important policies that would win a majority of House members if they came to an up-or-down vote, restricting the House’s ability to work on behalf of a majority of Americans. In fact, the budget deal Mr. Boehner just struck with the White House violated the Hastert Rule, passing the House Wednesday with only 79 Republicans voting “yes.” Yet the deal will keep the government’s debt payments current and its lights on. It would have been better for Mr. Ryan to have refused to have his hands tied.
Congress, moreover, seems to be in the process of punting the most important issues until after the next president is sworn in. Mr. Ryan promised to keep comprehensive immigration reform off the table as long as President Obama was in the White House. Mr. Boehner’s budget deal will keep the government funded for two more years, so there will be less opportunity to tackle the country’s long-term budget imbalances until early 2017.
That leaves Mr. Ryan — and the country — with a clipped agenda over the next two years. He may waste more of the people’s time attempting to repeal Obamacare. But he might also push to reform corporate taxes and federal anti-poverty programs. He has already devoted considerable energy to these matters, which could produce useful results. If done carefully, for example, corporate tax reform could boost U.S. competitiveness and provide some cash for the government to invest in infrastructure. Yet a House in which the hard right still holds considerable sway could easily sit more or less idle instead.
Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, can’t assume that a Republican will be in the White House in 2017 to make it easier for him to tackle immigration and the budget. Even if there is a GOP president, measures such as raising the debt limit will remain unpopular necessities — and very difficult to pull off without Democratic votes.
Mr. Ryan attempted to seek the speaker’s gavel on his own terms, informing the GOP caucus that he would not take the job unless the right wing put down one of its weapons, a procedure to remove the speaker by majority vote. Yet that alone will not solve the House’s dysfunction. At some point during his speakership, it is likely that Mr. Ryan will have to choose between failing the country or violating one of the pledges he made to conservatives. When that happens, we hope and trust that he will make the right choice.