Paul Ryan must be anxious to get back to Janesville, Wisconsin and to join all those well-paying corporate boards that await most former speakers of the House of Representatives. The job he has now certainly isn’t any fun.
Ryan became speaker mainly because no other Republican House member wanted the job after they saw what happened to John Boehner. (Is former Speaker Denny Hastert out of jail yet?) Boehner’s grand finale was to put a deal together that settled some budget and debt problems for a couple years. The Hastert rule about requiring a majority of the majority to sign off on legislation more or less went out the window as Boehner worked his magic.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to get elected speaker when Boehner was leaving but the extreme-right Freedom Caucus did him in. Ryan had a good Republican resume, so he became the default candidate for the job.
But after a short honeymoon with his caucus, the roof started to cave in on Ryan. He got his tax cuts through but they aren’t selling as well as expected. Other than that, no significant legislation has been approved by the Congress that Republicans can brag about. Dozens of members, including many in leadership positions, are jumping ship. The party has won most of the special elections in the past year, but the seats were in heavily Republican districts; the victory margins were small; and the money spent was enormous. There are plenty more districts like the one Conor Lamb won in Pennsylvania. You can’t spend $10 million on every marginal seat.
Donald Trump’s erratic politics, peppered by contempt for the rule of law, always spill over to Congress, and the enablers running that branch of government are too timid to challenge him. Add to that Ryan’s premature announcement of his departure from Congress. Add to that some Republicans, even surprisingly Chris Collins, who feel some obligation to help the “dreamers” who came to the United States as children of illegal immigrants. Add to that an interest in cutting food stamps. Add to that a need to renew federal agricultural policies.
Those members of the Republican House caucus who want to resolve the dreamer issue started a “discharge petition” to get a vote scheduled on their preferred immigration legislation. By early this week twenty Republicans had signed on, with more apparently secretly preparing to do so, so only a handful more signatures are required to get a dreamer bill to the House floor.
But there are just enough members of the Freedom Caucus to wreak havoc to try to get their way. The current weapon of choice: the agricultural bill, loaded with crop subsidies and providing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as food stamps.
The Freedom Caucus emphatically made their point. Last week the agricultural bill, something very important to the constituencies of Donald Trump and many Republican members of Congress, was defeated so that the Freedom Caucus could send a message: you, congressional leaders, promised immigration restrictions and we want you to deliver. We’ll hold up the farm bill until you give us a scheduled vote on the Freedom Caucus’ version of an immigration bill. And, BTW, we want your support for our bill.
There are a small number of Republicans who are concerned about food stamps, but most support for the program is on the Democratic side of the aisle.
So the Paul Ryan led House of Representatives doesn’t know which way to go. Push in one direction – lose a chunk of the caucus. Push another way and lose a different part of the caucus.
What Ryan and company are left with is what John Boehner was left with: something needs to get done and it isn’t going to be pretty. The despised Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic minority in the House will once again be the drivers of the solutions, on both the dreamers and the agricultural bills.
The odds of dreamer legislation, given the disruption of Ryan and company by the extreme right, are very low. The agricultural bill has only a slightly better chance of success.
If Democrats take control in November, Kevin McCarthy or Steve Scalise, or whoever becomes the new House Republican leader will be the minority leader, selected by only a majority of the minority, so small segments of the whole caucus will be powerless. Then the Freedom Caucus can wail and howl all they want, not having the ability to run the show.
Running the show in the next Congress won’t exactly be fun for anyone. If the Democrats are in charge they can pass one-House bills and drive Donald Trump crazy with investigations and subpoenas. Winning the Senate is a lot more problematic for the Democrats in 2018 (the opposite will be true in 2020), but in any case legislating in the next Congress will pretty much come down to approving names for post offices.
There will, of course, be opportunities to play out the political intrigue that will come out of the work of the special counsel. And then there will endless hearings about the other Trump administration scandals ranging from Ben Carson to Scott Pruitt to Ryan Zinke and all the others.
Talk of impeachment, with Trump-loving Republicans still in the Senate even if they should turn out to be in the minority, is not going to lead to anything productive. As long as the Democrats control at least one house, they can stymie Trump and let him twist in the wind until the 2020 election opportunity to remove him comes along.
Trump’s anti-rule-of-law attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI really are, as Chuck Schumer described it, something that a banana republic would do. Some Republicans, like Devin Nunes and Mark Meadows, are active co-conspirators in the attacks on our constitutional government. The rest of the Republicans, sitting on their hands, are equally but silently complicit.
The reality of what is likely to occur over the next two and a half years is not going to be pleasant, but hopefully it will be a wakeup call for a majority of the country that complacency about the political world leads to very bad results. Think of what needs to happen with the Trump administration as a colonoscopy for the country. Not pleasant, but occasionally necessary for the good of the body politic.