House Republicans had to pry open Paul Ryan’s hands to accept a gavel he really didn’t want, and on Thursday, Ryan announced that he would run for the job of speaker, virtually assuring that he will get it. But even though he became a consensus pick, an analysis of his fellow GOP representatives suggests that Ryan is no likelier to be his party’s savior in the House than he was Mitt Romney’s. The problem isn’t Ryan. It’s that taking on this particular job is more akin to being handcuffed than being given free reign.
Once, the office of speaker was a noble aspiration or a slowly plotted lifelong ambition, achieved by clever parliamentary tacticians like Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi. These days, the job pretty much requires its occupant to wear a “kick me” sign.
As Romney’s 2012 running mate, Ryan emerged from the obscurity of a House member to earn his colleagues’ widespread admiration. But as long as a Democratic president wields a veto pen, any GOP speaker will be stuck with passing spending and debt-hike measures that are viscerally unpopular with the party’s grass-roots base, or else risk a shutdown or debt default that would spell catastrophe for the party’s standing with the larger public.
With 247 seats, Republicans have their largest majority since the Hoover era. But it’s a majority in name only. A popular narrative to explain the odd leadership vacuum is that House Republicans are embroiled in an all-out civil war. On one side are realistic members of the GOP “establishment,” according to this line of thinking; on the other is the quixotic 36-member House Freedom Caucus, making demands like defunding Planned Parenthood as a condition of keeping the government open.
That depiction is partially accurate. But upon closer inspection, the House GOP conference isn’t simply divided in two. It’s more useful to view its members on a spectrum. On one end are those most willing to back up the chamber’s leaders and cast tough votes for spending bills needed to keep the government open. On the other are the unwilling rebels most aligned with ideological groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, who are adamant about the need for spending cuts. A large group of members are scattered in between.
The Cook Political Report has plotted House GOP members on this leadership/anti-leadership spectrum by assessing members’ records on five critical votes in 2015. On all but the election of the speaker, the GOP required at least some Democratic votes to obtain a majority needed for passage:
Share of House Republicans who backed leadership on five key 2015 votes
- 87% — Election of John Boehner for speaker (Jan. 6)
- 86% — Long-term fix for Medicare physician reimbursement rates (March 26)
- 53% — Reauthorizing federal support for Amtrak (March 4)
- 37% — Funding government without defunding Planned Parenthood (Sept. 30)
- 30% — Funding Department of Homeland Security without overturning Obama’s immigration executive order (March 3)
Then we grouped members together according to their propensity to vote for or against party leadership on these votes, using a rubric devised by Cook National Editor Amy Walter in 2013:
House GOP factions in 2015
- 51 “Dependables”: voted with leadership all five times
- 39 “Allies”: voted with leadership four of five times
- 51 “Helpers”: voted with leadership three of five times
- 53 “Skeptics”: voted with leadership two of five times
- 25 “Agitators”: voted with leadership one of five times
- 11 “Rebels”: voted with leadership zero of five times
Note: 17 Republicans didn’t cast enough votes to be counted in one of the above groups.
Most House Republicans aren’t simply “establishment” backers or “tea party” rebels. In fact, the plurality in the middle belongs to what The New York Times has dubbed the “Vote No, Hope Yes” caucus. These Republicans vote strategically with the leadership just enough of the time to jockey for plum committee assignments, but they voted against Boehner enough to shield themselves from a tea party primary back home.
However, Ryan has been a rare “Dependable,” just like Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who folded his speaker bid after the House Freedom Caucus opposed him. He’s one of only 51 members (21 percent of the conference) who have voted with leadership all five times, including on the continuing resolution last month that kept the government open, despite the conservative push to shut it down over federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
The 36 “Rebels” and “Agitators,” who overlap almost perfectly with the membership of the House Freedom Caucus, hold a fundamentally different perspective: 72 percent were elected after President George W. Bush left office, and most won their primaries by running against not only President Obama, but also the Bush-era bailouts and the GOP “status quo” of tax and spend. They almost all hail from safe GOP seats.
By contrast, the 51 “Dependables” skew toward veteran members who were first elected in a different era, when earmarks and accumulated clout were tickets to political security. A majority — 55 percent — were first elected before Bush left office. Many hail from swing districts outside the South where bipartisanship pays political dividends. Ryan is Exhibit A: he was first elected in a Wisconsin swing district in 1998 and voted with Democrats to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout in 2008.
For now, Ryan may look like a valiant hero in Republicans’ hour of need, and he should win over just enough of the House Freedom Caucus to become speaker. But if he assumes responsibility to govern, his record will begin to take on more importance than his star résumé, and the harsh realities of House politics will force him to leave at least some admirers disappointed.