The Speaker’s Grovel
The constitutional role of the Speaker of the House
We may not know how the ultimate budget impasse of 2018 will be resolved (the next shutdown deadline having been delayed six weeks). Nor do we know the resolution of the increasingly tense DACA dilemma – unnecessarily created by President Trump’s decision to rescind the broadly supported program. But as Congress inartfully stumbles through each of these artificially created crises, we have come to understand one incontrovertible fact about Speaker Paul Ryan: not only is he remarkably unskilled as a strategic leader, but he also fundamentally misunderstands the constitutional role of the institution over which he presides.
Granted, like John Boehner before him, Ryan has the misfortune of leading an agglomeration of factions ranging from hard-boiled conservatives to ideologically purist wing nuts who view their own leadership as perilously close to traitorous (to use a currently popular accusation). Boehner would compare the difficulty of assembling a working majority of 218 out of the diverse Republican Conference to herding chickens. A significant portion of those Republicans who strutted into Congress in 2010, as well as those who have followed them in three successive elections, has little interest in whether Congress operates in a responsible manner or garners public trust. Congress, to their way of thinking, is the enemy, along with the rest of the federal government, and actions that reduce public regard for these institutions are valued, not avoided.
The large dissident faction admittedly makes Ryan’s job more challenging. Indeed, with the exception of last year’s tax law, he has been unable to pass into law any bill that contained a whiff of controversy, and has been forced to rely on Democrats (as he did again with the latest CR) to pass anything at all. And, to state the obvious, passing a law that unloads tax cuts (even if skewed to the rich) is not the toughest sell to members, even if it does violate the Right’s anti-deficit mumbo-jumbo.
But Ryan should, at a minimum, demonstrate a dedication to the constitutional role of the institution he leads. For a half century, the congressional pushback against the Imperial Presidency and its dangerous tendency to vacuum up power from other branches of government has been a largely bipartisan effort. Even when both the presidency and Congress have been controlled by the same party, House and Senate members – who after all have a different constituency from a president – have asserted the prerogatives given them under Article I of the Constitution to promote their own agenda and check the exercise of executive authority.
Not Paul Ryan, who displays unequivocal loyalty to Donald Trump, who in October of 2016 dismissed the Speaker “a very weak and ineffective leader.” Trump may have been onto something, but it hardly should earn him the Speaker’s unqualified fealty. Yet loyalty is what Ryan has served up, including a virtual lack of oversight of Trump’s widespread use of executive authority in issuing regulations impacting pollution, environmental protection, financial institutions, health, education and dozens of other controversial topics. not to mention the stunning failure to conduct anything approaching competent investigations into the efforts of Russia to interfere in U.S. elections or the relationship of the Trump Administration to innumerable shadowy figures conducting dubiously legal activities.
The latest example of Ryan’s fecklessness and deference to the Tweeter-in-Chief came in response to Democratic demands that the Speaker follow the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and set a time to begin debate on DACA legislation. Senate Democrats secured such a promise from McConnell to put immigration legislation on the Senate floor in March, but no such pledge has been forthcoming from Ryan. Indeed, the Speaker has not even committed to take up legislation if sent over to the House by a bipartisan Senate vote, a disturbing reminder of the failure of the House to consider the Senate-passed bipartisan comprehensive immigration package in 2013.
Instead, the constitutional leader of the legislative branch has declared that he will schedule a vote on DACA legislation only if President Trump supports it.
Hello, Mr. Speaker, not the way the place is supposed to run. Legislation originates in Congress; that old, “President proposes, Congress disposes” slogan went out decades ago (remember: no Obama-proposed legislation was “disposed of” for 6 years!). Here is the crucial source material that might help you understand your responsibilities to the American people; check out Article I. The job of members of the House (especially) is to listen to your conscience and the constituents you were elected to serve, not grovel before Donald Trump or any other president.
John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published by John’s blog, Domeocracy.