The majesty of the office of speaker of the House of Representatives is sanctified by the U.S. Constitution, where it’s the first position named, even before the presidency. The speaker is second in line to the White House, after the vice president. Historical giants have occupied the chair, including some who have been both revered and resented as dictators. In recent years, the speaker’s been neither exalted nor feared nor able to command his own party. First, Speaker John A. Boehner resigned from Congress in October 2015, after he was unable to control the conservative wing of his House Republican caucus. His successor, Paul Ryan, is also facing Republican rebellion. Even with the House, Senate and presidency all in his party’s hands, Ryan may find it difficult to make the speaker’s office a potent force again.
Ryan was hit with a major defeat on March 24 when he was unable to gain enough Republican House votes to pass a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Republicans had been calling for an end of the ACA, known as Obamacare, since it was enacted in 2010. Yet the House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three dozen conservative Republican lawmakers, wanted to simply repeal the ACA; they wouldn’t compromise on a replacement some dubbed “Obamacare light.” President Donald Trump then lashed out at the Freedom Caucus. Ryan warned that if Republicans didn’t unify, Trump could cut deals with the Democrats. In 2016, Ryan had infuriated many in his party by not supporting Trump right after he clinched the Republican nomination. President-elect Trump and Ryan met in a show of unity, which was enough to tamp down talk of rebellion and assure his re-election as speaker.
Speakers were unimportant figures until Henry Clay of Kentucky used the post to lay out a national agenda, raising the stature of the office and the House. As the party system strengthened, the speaker took on an ever-larger role. It reached a peak under Joseph Cannon of Illinois, known to friends as “Uncle Joe” and to others as “Czar Cannon,” whose authoritarian rule prompted a bipartisan revolt in 1910. The longest-serving speaker was Sam Rayburn, a Texas Democrat who described himself as relying on “persuasion and kindness,” but who also had plenty of pork to hand out — or withhold. The House voted in 2010 to swear off such earmarks, as they were known. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, encouraged the move as the Tea Party surged before the 2010 elections, and became speaker with the support of the House’s new conservative members. But with so many of the office’s traditional tools gone, even his effort to rebuke some obstreperous members by bouncing them from choice committee assignments backfired, leading to an embarrassing effort to block his re-election as speaker in January 2013. While Boehner managed to win a third term, he broke with his caucus on some deals. He won passage of a budget agreement in 2013 that hard-liners thought had too much spending. Then he agreed to an increase in the federal debt ceiling in 2014, passed almost entirely with Democratic votes. Facing threats from conservatives who were discussing a no-confidence vote on his leadership, Boehner told his fellow Republicans he would resign in September 2015. Ryan, the former chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means and former vice presidential candidate, was originally elected as the 54th House speaker in October 2015. A Wisconsin Republican, Ryan only agreed to run for the job after getting support from some right-wing conservatives.
For years there’s been a struggle between “establishment” Republicans, who’ve made a career of politics and believe compromise is needed to get things done, and hard-liners, like the Freedom Caucus, who’ve been angry that the Republican leadership hasn’t done more to slash federal spending. Trump may not be much help there: He’s proposed $1 trillion in spending on infrastructure and building a wall along the Mexican border that could cost $10 billion. He’s also vowed to protect entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. If the members arguing for reducing the deficit stick to a no-compromise stance, it will continue to make life difficult for Ryan as he tries to cobble together a majority vote for a budget.
The Reference Shelf
- A website of the U.K. Parliament traces the role of the speaker back to the appointment of Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377. (Seven of his successors were beheaded.)
- Portrait of Speaker Joe Cannon adorning the first issue of Time magazine, dated March 3, 1923.
- A New York Times Magazine article on the death of the 2011 debt deal between Boehner and President Barack Obama.
- Politico profile of Boehner: “The Prisoner of Capitol Hill.”
First published Dec. 6, 2013
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