Thursday, October 22, 2015

So What Did Paul Ryan Give the House Freedom Caucus?

When Paul Ryan enumerated his conditions for pursuing the speakership in front of the assembled House Republican Conference on Tuesday night, one in particular seemed certain to provoke objections from the hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus: a requirement that the House amend its rules allowing the speakership to be vacated via a simple majority floor vote, in order to make it more difficult for a coalition of minority party members and dissatisfied members of the majority to remove a speaker mid-session. Since several conservative purists had been threatening to employ this provision to depose John Boehner in the weeks before Boehner announced his resignation, Ryan's demand seemed unlikely to win acceptance among the membership of the House Freedom Caucus, even as Ryan simultaneously claimed that he would only stand for speaker if he received the endorsement of the HFC as well as the rest of the major Republican party caucuses. Indeed, the immediate response to Ryan's conditions among members of the HFC was skeptical at best, and for good reason—they were effectively being asked to give up procedural power with no guarantee of receiving anything in return.

Yet after Ryan met personally with the HFC last evening on Capitol Hill, the purists' attitude had changed considerably. Ryan emerged from the meeting with the support of more than two-thirds of the HFC members—not enough to receive the group's official endorsement, but more than enough to ensure that he would face an easy path to the speakership without any active opposition within the party. What did Ryan tell the HFCers that won them over?

This Politico article and this Newsweek piece shed light on the matter. Among the promises made to the HFC were the following:

1. Ryan would not advance immigration reform legislation for the remainder of the 2015–2016 session of Congress.

2. He would respect the "Hastert Rule" norm, under which legislation is brought to the floor only if it receives support from a majority of the majority party.

3. He would work to return to "regular order," in which legislation follows the textbook process of emerging from the committee system (rather than being introduced directly to the floor by the leadership), with open rules allowing further amendments on the floor.

4. He would pursue various changes to the internal rules of the Republican conference that would weaken the power of the speaker to control the process of assigning members to committees.

The first promise is fairly trivial—this already did not look like a Congress that was about to take action on immigration—but easy to fulfill. But what about the others?

As Ryan surely knows, the violations of the Hastert Rule and regular order that have occurred under the Boehner speakership have been necessary in order for the House to pass essential legislation such as funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. Boehner, too, pledged to return to regular order, but was ultimately stymied by the problem that appropriations bills written by mainstream Republicans would often become stuck in committee, opposed by a both-ends-against-the-middle coalition of Democrats who preferred a more liberal policy and purist Republicans who favored even deeper spending cuts. Since final legislation could only be enacted with the acquiescence of Senate Democrats and President Obama, Boehner opted to negotiate agreements with the Senate and White House first, bringing them back to the House for consideration thereafter (and often passing them on the floor with more Democratic than Republican support).

The Freedom Caucus members not only want to further empower a committee system in which they can often exercise an effective veto over legislation (despite their minority status within the Republican Party at large), but are also pushing for even more representation on powerful committees—as well as protection from internal GOP reprisal for voting however they wish. Ryan clearly convinced many of them of his sincerity in sharing these goals. But it is difficult to see how he could be an effective speaker by giving in to their requests, and his assurances Tuesday night fell short of formal commitments to enact any specific reform or rules change. Can he achieve his stated demand to amend the motion-to-vacate rule without being forced to trade away formal powers elsewhere?

Above all, what Ryan seems to have given the House Freedom Caucus is something else that its members have seemed desperate to acquire: personal respect. It is clear from both of the above articles that Ryan spoke sympathetically to the HFC, signaled that he took their ideas seriously, even flattered them a bit. After several years under Boehner in which the hard-liners felt as if they suffered constant contempt and isolation, this approach seems to have gone a long way toward inspiring enthusiasm for a Ryan speakership among initially skeptical purists. But it's unclear how long such friendly gestures can allow Ryan to maintain HFC support while simultaneously managing the institution of the House—a task that proved impossible under his otherwise able predecessor in the speaker's chair.

UPDATE: Ryan is now backing down from his demand that a change in the motion-to-vacate procedure be enacted immediately by the House, suggesting that he wants to institute it down the road in exchange for internal Republican Party reforms sought by the HFC. Unless he can keep laying on the charm, the probability that he will eventually wind up facing the same procedural threats as Boehner just jumped up a few notches.