Paul D. Ryan is a bit of a control freak: Each day should have a similar rhythm, each meeting should begin on time, each day should end like the day before.
All of which makes his new job as speaker of the House, overseeing a raucous caucus of 246 Republicans, an odd fit for this very Type A personality. This past week was an early test. “I’m really kind of into routines, so I’m still working on getting a routine established,” Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Thursday in a roundtable discussion.
Ryan, 45, whose German mother instilled a rigid discipline in him, can’t even get over the fact that the speaker, by tradition, skips most House votes to conduct more meetings in office suites off the chamber floor: “I just like having routines, and I can get more done that way.”
With three weeks under his belt as speaker, Ryan has learned that the routine business of Congress can turn on a dime, for almost any reason. He’s aware that his words carry more weight now, and he’s aware that some weeks he’s not going to be able to live up to his promises of letting the House conduct business in a completely transparent fashion.
One week he was promoting a wide-open, free-flowing system of dozens of amendments for a highway funding plan, winning an impressive bipartisan vote. The next week brought the exact opposite, with a rushed bill to tighten safety requirements for Syrian refugees in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris. No committee considered the legislation, no amendments were allowed, and the bill was made public about 40 hours before it was voted on by the House.
That inflicted whiplash on some lawmakers, but it demonstrated that Ryan understands that the ultimate judgment of his tenure will be based on results as much as, if not more than, the process used to achieve those results.
In the 35-minute session, Ryan said that the decision to rush the legislation — which calls for tighter screenings of refugees before they can be admitted — was actually driven by the lawmakers themselves. Despite their repeated outcries for an open process, once they saw the impact of terrorism in Paris, lawmakers reverted to their most basic political instinct and demanded that something be approved before they left Thursday for a 10-day recess over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“Most members said we need to act before we leave, we need to act before the recess,” Ryan said. “People came from intelligence briefings saying, ‘You need to do something.’ ”
So Ryan obliged, setting up a process he admitted was “outside the realm of regular order” and scored a big political win, getting more than a two-thirds majority, enough to overrule a presidential veto. He said that with so much fear of terrorist attacks, the public just needed to see Congress get something done.
“If we had a free-for-all on the floor, who knows what the outcome would be, and I think that the country is very worried and the country wants to see us doing something,” he said. But he also ran into some familiar partisan turbulence.
Despite Ryan’s assertion to have consulted Democrats, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee said he had no part in the legislation and described it as a “gotcha bill” that will not make the nation any safer.
“We probably say things to get where we are, position-wise,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) said after Thursday’s vote, during which nearly 50 Democrats rejected White House pleas and voted with Ryan. “But once we get there, it’s not nearly as easy to govern with new rules as we thought.”
The high-profile victory was an odd one for a new speaker who has staked so much of his reputation on advancing deep policy proposals, eschewing so-called show votes that are more designed to protect political flanks back home.
Even Ryan said that the real concern for national security was a visa waiver program that lacks proper protocols and the emerging threat of homegrown terrorists inspired by overseas events, and that those threats could make their way across the Atlantic Ocean.
“Common sense and prudence dictate that we be on higher alert and that we cannot assume that Paris was a one-and-done event,” he said.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) mocked Ryan’s quick turnaround to flush a bill through the House so quickly, suggesting that the increasingly conservative tone of the Republican presidential primary campaign would “reflect” the congressional dysfunction and boost Democrats in next year’s elections. Some GOP presidential hopefuls called for a full stop of any Syrian refugees while some also called for allowing only Christian refugees.
The speaker said that his motivations were based on what he heard from House Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“I don’t even know all of their positions, to be candid,” he said of the presidential aspirants. “I’ve been busy doing my job.”
The speaker’s newly fumigated office — the smoke-filled paint left behind by Camel-smoking John A. Boehner was chipped off, the carpet cleaned multiple times — has proven to be comfortable in the early days. “It smells better in here,” Ryan joked.
But once Congress returns after Thanksgiving, Ryan’s routine will revert to what the speaker dismissively calls “the chores”: passing a compromised version of the highway bill through the House and Senate, approving a new K-12 education program and finally, by Dec. 11, a massive funding plan for federal agencies.
Each of these issues is either many months, or many years, behind schedule, so Ryan views them as cleaning up other leaders’ messes. They will again test his ethos for opening up the House, a demand from the conservative flank that so bedeviled Boehner he became only the second speaker to resign midterm in the past 50 years.
He claims to be one of those far-right conservatives, that he is of their ilk and not trying to force them to bend to his will. “You have to understand, I come from the conservative wing of the party, I’m a movement conservative who comes from this part of our party. People know that, you know. So a lot of these guys are pretty good friends of mine,” he said.
If only he can figure out a routine, again, he might make it work.
“Time management has always been challenging. It’s just even more challenging,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m really weird about time management and punctuality, and I just want to make sure I can stay on top of those things.”