Ahead of midterm elections that are already looking treacherous for Republicans, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) is abandoning ship. His announcement that he will not seek re-election in November will likely further sap the morale of Republicans, who are already bearing the Sisyphean weight of President Donald Trump’s unpopularity and risking losing their majority in the House of Representatives.
Although I never agreed with him on much, if anything at all, I formerly bought into the image of him as an earnest policy wonk who read budget documents for fun. I respected him for what I thought was love of country when he left the House Ways and Means Committee to take up the Speaker’s gavel following the resignation of Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) in 2015. It was a job he had not sought nor even wanted.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Ryan played almost every card wrong. Over years he cultivated a reputation as someone deeply concerned with fiscal discipline, but to him that meant destroying the safety net, disemboweling Medicaid, privatizing Social Security and Medicare and generally making life more difficult and unpleasant for the most vulnerable among us. Ironically, he will leave after setting the deficit on a path to exceeding $1 trillion annually by 2020. Even as he announced his departure, he made no mention of Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants, abhorrent attacks on the press, escalation of rhetoric against the special counsel, strange affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin or countless other sins against the Constitution, rule of law, stewardship of the presidential office and basic decency.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) went to the Senate floor to suggest that “with his newfound political freedom, I hope the speaker uses his remaining time in Congress to break free from the hard-right factions of his caucus that have kept Congress from getting real things done. If he’s willing to reach across the aisle, he’ll find Democrats willing and eager to work with him.”
Maybe Ryan should take Schumer’s suggestion seriously. Taking up certain legislation for votes could both defend his reputation as more than just a Trump lackey or sycophant and be smart, pragmatic politics for Republicans. If they are smart, Democrats will not move the goalposts further left, but will instead seize the rare opportunity for true bipartisan legislation toward common goals.
For example, Ryan could prevent a constitutional crisis and bring to the House floor a bipartisan compromise bill designed to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. On April 11, 2018, a bipartisan group of four senators — Chris Coons (D-DE), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — introduced the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act. Among other provisions, it codifies existing Department of Justice regulations specifying that a special counsel may only be fired for “good cause” by a senior Department of Justice official. Although Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) agreed to take it up with his committee, one can expect his Republican colleagues to delay it in committee and in its path to the floor. Ryan could take up the bill in the House and make good on his reputation as a constitutional conservative. Protecting Mueller from being fired could help the Republican caucus in the midterm elections, who would be able to tell voters that they took their fidelity to the Constitution seriously.
As a career-long free-trader, he could protect the economy from a trade war by rolling back part of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which delegated to the president the power to unilaterally enact tariffs in the name of “national security.” Trump relied on this exception to levy recent tariffs on steel and aluminum, which could have severe adverse effects on industries such as agriculture, aerospace and manufacturing.
Finally, he could put a clean fix to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) on the floor for a vote. A bill to fully reinstate DACA in exchange for some strengthened border security would likely have support from enough Democrats to pass and could help the Republican caucus in California, Texas and Florida. Ryan has repeatedly said he wanted a resolution for Dreamers. Now is his chance.
There is no reason why the pro-immigration and pro-free trade “constitutional conservative” that Ryan claims he is should not take up these issues in his last nine months. If he does so, he could be remembered for something other than exploding the federal deficit and excusing a president who has set new lows for fidelity to the Constitution.
Ryan spent the past two years furrowing his brow at Trump’s disgraceful words and actions before going right back to supporting the president. He made a Faustian bargain on the false assumption that Trump would be compliant, take direction from House Republicans and show enough discipline to allow Ryan to cut taxes for billionaires and eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. Here’s hoping, though, that in his presumed-to-be last moments as an elected official, Ryan will be able to separate partisan loyalty from patriotic obligation. But with any luck, his successor will be a Democrat.