Soon after Paul Ryan replaced John Boehner as Speaker of the House at the end of October, a succession of critical bills passed, from highway funding to a sweeping education law to a spending package. Boehner had advanced these measures as part of an effort to “clean the barn” for his successor. But it was Ryan who saw them through to completion, leading to a small of trend stories about how the new Speaker was poised to “get things done” in Congress, bringing a new attitude of inclusive participation and common-ground-finding.
Six months after Ryan took the Speaker’s gavel, the barn is dirty again, and he’s shown himself to be a demonstrably worse leader than Boehner. Not only has the entire agenda he laid out at the beginning of the year fizzled, but Ryan cannot get agreement on emergency measures, which even the most gridlocked Congresses of the past could manage.
The difference between Boehner’s and Ryan’s approaches boils down to one key thing. By the end, Boehner had come to hate the House Freedom Caucus, the far-right cabal that brought on his ouster through its relentless opposition to compromise. But Ryan merely fears the Freedom Caucusers, unwilling to cross them by championing legislation they don’t like. And with the extreme right flank having an effective veto on the process, nothing of consequence can move.
Most of us missed it at the time, but even as Ryan was saying noble things about “making Congress work” as the newly minted Speaker, he was simultaneously disavowing his early success in the job. Speaking to Meet the Press about the omnibus budget package the House passed in December, he said, “I don’t like the process, but it is the process I inherited. Everybody knows that I walked into the Speakership seven weeks ago with this process already in place.”
By pinning the budget bill—and its continued funding for things conservatives abhorred—on Boehner, Ryan was signaling that he wouldn’t give conservatives anything more to be angry about in 2016. The dynamic of the presidential election, dominated by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, only cemented this by whipping up the right wing and making House Republicans nervous about getting in the Tea Party crosshairs.
Ryan was offering a free pass to obstruct, and the Freedom Caucus happily obliged. The new Speaker had promised not only a budget resolution, but final passage through the committee process on all twelve appropriations bills to fund the government—Congress’s main function between now and the end of the term. But that blew up in spectacular fashion when the Freedom Caucus decided it wanted to cut back a spending level that was already set in place by a budget bill from last year. The April 15 deadline for a budget resolution passed with no action. Instead of appropriations bills, we’ll most likely see another continuing resolution to fund the government—the kind that Republicans used to love to bash Democrats for when they were in power.
Other priorities Ryan set at the beginning of the year, from criminal-justice reform to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to affirming the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have languished as well, mainly because of Freedom Caucus opposition. But it’s on emergency legislation where Ryan’s lack of leadership and accommodation with his conservative rank-and-file shows up the most.
The basic test of governance is the ability to respond to rapidly changing events, and Speaker Ryan has been confronted by several at once. On May 1, the government of Puerto Rico is likely to go into default, without Congressional action helping the U.S. territory deal with its unpayable $73 billion debt burden. Puerto Rico is also one of several regions struggling with the effects of the Zika virus, which is ravaging much of Latin America with debilitating effects on children born to carriers—and is headed into this country. Then there’s the water crisis in Flint, which requires ongoing emergency assistance and raises awareness of lead poisoning in U.S. infrastructure more generally. Meanwhile, heroin and opioid painkiller abuse is causing thousands of deaths per year and affecting virtually every part of the country, particularly rural areas in red states.
No legislation addressing any of this has passed in the House.
Ryan initially promised to act on Puerto Rico by the end of March. Days before the deadline, the House Natural Resources Committee had only come up with a discussion draft—not even a bill, but the starting point for one—which Ryan called “thoughtful” and “comprehensive.” In reality, it would have turned Puerto Rico into a colony for the benefit of its creditors, but even that wasn’t enough for the Freedom Caucus, which screamed about a bailout (even though no taxpayer money would be on the line). These internal frictions meant that Republicans couldn’t get the bill out of the Natural Resources Committee. Democrats said they were left out of negotiations, with Ryan only trying to placate an implacable right flank. The chances of any bill hitting the House floor before May 1 are extremely remote.
Two months ago, the Obama Administration requested $1.8 billion to fight Zika. This has gone unfulfilled, to the extent that the White House shifted $600 million from combatting the Ebola virus into anti-Zika efforts. In other words, the administration had to raid money appropriated at a time when Congress still did its job to combat public health emergencies. This not only risks a resumption of Ebola cases, it still leaves insufficient funds to deal with Zika.
Ryan’s House has also failed to act on emergency funding for Flint, six months after the revelations of lead-tainted drinking water received widespread attention. Meanwhile, it’s possible that the House will get around to voting on bills to deal with the opioid epidemic, but it’s been more than a month since the Senate passed a similar package 94-1, and the House is only now turning to it. And since the bill includes grant programs for state and local governments, and the Freedom Caucus won’t tolerate additional funding for anything, the ultimate path forward is murky.
These bills are crashing because Ryan won’t do what made Boehner so unpopular among the Republican House caucus: cut deals with Democrats to pass legislation that Republican factions oppose. Boehner’s 2015 House actually found success through that kind of deal-making, with agreements on Medicare funding, highways, and education, to name a few. But Ryan isn’t forging coalitions for bills that have the support of the majority of the House, because doing so would anger the vocal minority on the right. Far from “making Congress work,” he’s decided to make it stall.
Congress was always going to be fairly invisible in 2016 anyway; it’s an election-year tradition. But the thing about emergencies and catastrophes is that they don’t check the electoral calendar before striking. Millions of American citizens at risk of fiscal ruin, disease, poisoning, or addiction cannot wait for another government to provide them aid. Ryan is failing the most basic test of governance because he’s afraid that hardcore, anti-government conservatives won’t like him for doing so. It’s enough to make you long for the stable functionality of Boehner’s tenure.