Opinion: Paul Ryan and a Republican consensus

Opinion: Paul Ryan and a Republican consensus

As Paul Ryan takes over as House Speaker, what will his legislative agenda look like moving forward?

It is still difficult to assess how effective Paul Ryan will be in his new job. However it appears that he is the last hope for pragmatism and a Republican consensus in the near future.

In effect the most conservative Republicans have no place else to go if they want to be part of a coherent and viable conservative reform program. In this regard it is telling that Congressman Daniel Webster of Florida, the Freedom Caucus candidate for Speaker, responded positively to Ryan’s request for his help in preventing yet another budget shutdown before the December 11 deadline.

In fact, Webster’s willingness to help Ryan comes soon after Ryan’s victory in getting a transportation spending bill through the House. The bill marks the first long term spending bill to come out of the House in a decade.

In keeping his promise to conservatives about an open legislative process, members proposed a wide number of amendments and several were included successfully. The only conservative drawback was that the final House version approved a six-year program but only provided funding for three years.

The House leadership blocked any of the controversial changes to taxes that fund the program so that the bill would likely pass.

Ryan has proven unusually adroit and skillful in negotiating a very diverse Republican caucus. Since he has articulated very conservative economic beliefs throughout his career, including support for privatizing Social Security and Medicare, he is ideologically akin to many in the Freedom Caucus.

The real difference is his pragmatism as a conventional politician. He believes that political leaders should develop coherent policy alternatives to programs they oppose instead of solely expressing dissent, and is clearly willing to settle for compromises that result after exhausting all resources to move a conservative policy agenda.

In a characterization of the 2010 class of Republicans Ryan held that they were transformational, stating that they weren’t cautious like the career politicians who are usually elected to Congress. They’re rather a “…crop of people who came up as doctors and dentists and small-business people and roofers and D.A.s. They’re not here for careers—they’re here for causes.”

This characterization is even truer for the Freedom Caucus. Many of those in the Freedom Caucus are political outsiders who won because their politically disaffected constituencies disliked politicians. They aren’t moved by concrete compromises or political gains as much as they are by reflecting their constituent’s values. They oppose large government, deficits, subsidies and entitlements, but unlike Ryan fail to produce alternative policy agendas.

Ryan did not want the speakership and said he would not take it unless those in the Republican caucus all voted for him. This failed to happen, however a “supermajority” of the Freedom Caucus did support him. True to his pragmatism he settled for this compromise.

Ryan has fashioned an advisory group of leaders from the Freedom Caucus, the moderate Tuesday Group, and the conventionally conservative Republican Study Committee to meet weekly and to help facilitate proposals. Currently he is allowing the appropriations committee to make the first attempt at negotiating between Republican factions and is seeking input from everyone.

Unfortunately this will include amendments to spending bills or an omnibus spending bill that will include defunding Planned Parenthood, possibly restrict the powers of the EPA, or try to again eliminate funding for the Export-Import Bank which had its authority and funding reinstated as an amendment to the transportation bill.

At the moment, Ryan has made it clear that the House has the power of the purse and is therefore letting negotiations go forward on all budget related issues in accord with his open process. He’ll then defend the result in the face of any criticism from the White House.

Despite the continuing concerns about a possible government shut down, it is likely that a funding bill will be fashioned under the new regime in the House. The primary reason for optimism is the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 that John Boehner helped arrange before leaving as Speaker and sets up spending levels for both civilian and security community spending until 2017 including contingencies that may develop.

The bill only created caps and did not specify the actual provisions of the final spending bill. However, it did set a precedent for using Democratic votes to reach a budget related majority if a majority of Republicans was not forthcoming.

Moreover, despite his very conservative budgetary proposals, in 2013 it was Ryan himself who was the conservative point man who put together the budgetary compromise with Patty Murray.

No doubt he may have to shape final legislation going forward that includes comprise with the Freedom Caucus, such as putting a cap on the number of patients funded at Planned Parenthood, or constraining the Export Import Bank despite its help to U.S. companies while still allowing enough support to win Democrats and even Republicans who value Planned Parenthood or the EXIM Bank.

No doubt additional conservative tax or privatization initiatives will be in store down the road as well. Ryan is among the most conservative House Speakers in U.S. history and his final legacy will reflect this.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.