When the Smoke Clears

The often hazy world of congressional backroom power politics does little to alleviate the frustration felt by voters who decry the increasingly partisan gridlock that has seeped into the fabric of the District’s culture. The inability to compromise on recent budgetary spending and debt limit increases has led to uncertainty at best and at worst an outright lack of trust for an area that is already severely lacking it. However, some relief was provided when the smoke dissipated just enough for 236 members of the House of Representatives to find a way to coalesce and nominate a successor to outgoing Speaker John Boehner. There was discussion that Kevin McCarthy, a Republican representative from California, would be a viable replacement, but these musings were silenced when during a meeting of Republicans he declared, “We need a fresh face” and proceeded to withdraw his name from consideration.

The resulting vacuum was quickly filled with names ranging from the usual pool of House Republicans such as Benghazi committee chair Ted Gowdy (R-SC), House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), and Darrell Issa (R-CA) among others. But even with all the potential power players throwing their hats in the ring, it was Paul Ryan (R-WI) who continually found himself volunteered as the person best capable to fill the void.

Initially, the policy wonk in Ryan repeatedly balked at the numerous suggestions that he run for the position, citing his love for his current job as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee as well as the overall dysfunction within the party. Ironically (or not), it was this reluctance that made him the most suitable candidate in the eyes of the party. After a few weeks of persistent persuasion by his peers, Ryan’s stonewalling softened. He stated that he would fill the position, but with the stipulation that the quarrelsome cliques within the party (e.g. the Freedom Caucus, which was responsible for Boehner’s ouster) must pledge their support to him. He also asked for a revision of Republican rules that would make it more difficult to remove the Speaker, and requested that he not be required to fund-raise as much as previous Speakers, who have traditionally expended a good portion of their time campaigning for party members across the country. When enough support was garnered the forty-five year old relented and on October 28 he was officially sworn in as the 54th Speaker of the House.

It is unsurprising that the search to find a new Speaker had been such a slog. Mr. Boehner, who reigned as Speaker for the past five years, found himself at the mercy of the very same wave of anti-establishment sentiment that got him elected to the third highest elected office in the country. He continually butted heads with members of the far right faction in the Republican Party which has continually pushed its ideology down the throats of more moderate party members; the Tea Party has been relentless in in its pursuit to demand government accountability in the form of tax and service cuts at the federal level. This was clearly illustrated in his defense of the 2013 government shutdown in which he defended himself by stating that “a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk”. In other words, he believed that his job as Speaker was to push through the policy of those most boisterous within his party, a sentiment not everyone agrees with.

Speaker Ryan hoped to quash this infighting with his initial demand that the party support him, but not all members agreed to his initial requirements for running. His predecessor eased his transition somewhat by removing one stumbling block for Ryan; before Boehner resigned, he pushed through the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 (BBA), which according to President Obama, “should finally free us from the cycle of shutdown and last-minute fixes”. Although that sentiment is (of course) disputed, what is not disputed is that Mr. Boehner’s ability to usher the BBA at least eased Ryan’s transition into his new role. Having said that, the newly minted Speaker is still not invulnerable to the whims and wishes of those who wish to defund Planned Parenthood; with a December 11 deadline looming ever closer, Mr. Ryan may find himself in the situation he hoped to avoid: being at the mercy of a small group of Republicans who will do whatever is in their power to prevent all-encompassing legislation from moving forward until their concerns are addressed.

During his swearing in Ryan declared, “We are not solving problems. We are adding to them. And I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean.” He seemed to accept the situation he inherited when he stated, “We will not always agree… But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated.” Among the first actions Ryan, a self-proclaimed fitness fantastic, took upon moving into his new office was to remove the residual stink left behind by Boehner who is a notorious chain smoker. Perhaps once he is done eradicating the unpleasant stench of his curtains and carpets, he will have enough lung capacity to wade through the equally unpleasant halls of Congress. If Speaker Ryan’s rhetoric is to be taken seriously the “honest differences honestly stated” would do much to clear the miasmic fog that permeates the District. Clearer skies don’t appear to be in the forecast.

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