Paul Ryan is an endangered species: How congressional extremists could easily doom his speakership

The new House speaker was sold as the man who could unify the GOP caucus. Instead, he's becoming Boehner 2.0

By Gary Legum
Published January 7, 2016 3:23PM (EST)
John Boehner, Paul Ryan   (Reuters/Jason Reed/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)
John Boehner, Paul Ryan (Reuters/Jason Reed/AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)

Paul Ryan is very, very proud of himself. This week, the Congress will send to President Obama’s desk a bill that will repeal the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood. Now all they need is for the president to undergo some sort of Freaky Friday body switch with just about any member of the Republican Party, and the dream of ending Obamacare will finally be a reality.

Barring that, what will actually happen is that Obama will veto the bill. Darn, so close, guys. And we were all so sure the 62nd time would be the charm.

Now, this was only possible because the Senate passed a similar bill through the budget reconciliation process, which is not subject to minority filibusters and allows bills to pass with a simple majority vote. So Ryan didn’t really do anything different than his predecessor John Boehner would have, legislatively speaking. But he did get to tweet out a spiffy new: #OnHisDesk. Which in Washington is now preferable to the actual hard work of writing and passing legislation that might impact your constituents’ lives in tiny but positive ways.

Hashtags and demagoguery aside, what the GOP has actually done is start off the New Year – and the 10-month push to Election Day – by voting to take away healthcare from millions of Americans.

The larger point here is that, while it is still early in his tenure, so far the best evidence suggests that Paul Ryan’s House of Representatives is going to be pretty much as worthless as Boehner’s, at least this year: Do the bare minimum to keep the lights on and the government performing its basic functions, then placate the GOP's angry right wing by letting them pass “messaging” bills that President Obama will laugh right out of the Oval Office.

We've already seen the House take on an omnibus spending bill just before Christmas that Ryan needed Democratic votes to pass while the GOP’s Freedom Caucus was screaming for his head. This was pretty much how Boehner used to operate. The former speaker was an amiable party hack who didn’t really want to shut the government down to placate the gremlins that run through right-wingers’ minds whenever they see a line item for Planned Parenthood in the government’s budget. Such shutdowns might get the base excited, but they are bad for the business leaders and lobbyists who so recently held some semblance of control of the party

So Boehner would listen to the extremists, pat them on their heads, pay lip service to the idea that, say, repealing Obamacare was worth giving thousands of federal employees indefinite and unpaid vacations, and then at the last minute go negotiate with Nancy Pelosi to keep the lights on. This was a terrible way to run the nation, and it eventually cost Boehner his job.

There was never any reason to believe any of this would change with Ryan at the helm. But when the GOP was begging him to take the job, party leaders sold him as the only man who could unite his fractious caucus. Ryan himself promised the far right that he would return to them some of the power Boehner had yanked, that he would listen to their concerns without condescension, and that he would take action on the issues most important to them. He was helped by Boehner secretly negotiating one final spending deal with Obama, which allowed Ryan to pass the latest omnibus while telling conservatives that, gosh darn it, he hated to vote for such a monstrosity but his wily predecessor left him no choice.

None of this is to say that Ryan and Boehner are ideologically similar. Ryan has long been a zealot on supply-side economics, demonstrating a Randian belief in radically cutting the size of government, mostly on the backs of the poor. Boehner, on the other hand, while generally conservative, never met an ideological principle he wouldn’t trade away for a bottle of Scotch and someone else paying his greens fees.

But Ryan is pragmatic enough to understand his goals are unreachable by full-frontal assault. So you get him passing the omnibus and following it up with this latest attempt at repealing Obamacare. You have him slamming President Obama’s mild executive actions on guns (over which at least one Republican is threatening to shut down part of the executive branch), which keeps anyone from noticing the giant gift the business wing of the party is about to hand Volkswagen and its lobbyists after the automaker was caught earlier this year in a systemic violation of the Clean Air Act.

In terms of the results he’s getting in the House, Ryan is basically Boehner with cleaner lungs and minus the rambling, wine-drunk press conferences.

It remains to be seen whether this two-faced act will carry out through the entire year. The far right has been grumbling, and Ryan’s approval ratings have dropped. If the GOP thinks it has a real shot at winning the White House while retaining control of both houses of Congress, Ryan might be able to keep the right wing in line by pointing out the bonanza that will result for them with President Ted Cruz in the Oval Office. But if a Democrat takes the oath of office a year from now, far-right Republicans – and the GOP electorate in general – will be screaming very loudly for his scalp.

Gary Legum

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Congress Elections 2016 House Of Representatives Paul Ryan The Republican Party