Skip to Content

How Paul Ryan could actually, finally change Washington

US House Of Representatives Votes To Elect A New SpeakerUS House Of Representatives Votes To Elect A New Speaker
Newly sworn-in Speaker of the House Paul Ryan waves to colleagues.Photograph by Win McNamee -- Getty Images

Fresh starts should stoke optimism. Even a hardened skeptic can allow that much. So in keeping with the uncharacteristic if qualified hopefulness that’s run through the past couple Saturday dispatches, we give you the case for why things could really, actually, finally be different in the House under newly-minted Speaker Paul Ryan. One veteran House GOP lawmaker, himself no pollyanna, points to some qualities that make Ryan singularly suited to the moment. In a Friday background briefing on Capitol Hill, he ticked off three in particular:

  1. A national profile. As Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, Ryan was half of a ticket that won nearly 61 million votes nationwide. “I don’t think there’s another time in American history when somebody becomes Speaker who millions of people have already voted for and know in a way that most legislative people are never known. He’s a national political figure outside of and in addition to the institution.” That gives Ryan political leverage with recalcitrant members of his own conference never enjoyed by John Boehner, the consummate insider he’s replacing.
  2. Legislative chops. Despite his youth — at 45, Ryan is the youngest Speaker in nearly 150 years — he calls on a rare depth of experience in the chamber: He started there as a staffer right out of college and was elected to the first of his nine terms at 28. More crucially, his background is as a legislator, having chaired two key committees. In that, he’s unlike Boehner’s two previous would-be successors, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, both of whom vaulted into leadership in their second terms on the strength of their political fundraising. If your only experience is in leadership, “you’re mostly thinking about competition with Democrats, either electorally or legislatively,” the lawmaker said. “Most members don’t live in that world. Most members live in the world of their committee.” And Ryan, an ideologue who nonetheless has built a track record of working across the aisle, has pledged to return legislative agency to the committees — a move that should encourage his disaffected fringe to rejoin the process.
  3. Moral authority. “He didn’t want the damn job in the first place and everybody knows it.” That doesn’t mean he can count on everyone in his ranks to help, “but they’ll at least feel bad about not helping for a change.”

 

There are a thousand ways this could go sideways. The first test will come in early December, when Ryan needs to shepherd an omnibus spending package to keep the government funded. The task should be eased by the two-year budget framework Boehner helped engineer this week on his way out. No doubt for House Republicans, and the party more broadly, the route back toward a coherent governing vision — and the cohesion to execute it — remains long and jagged. This is only a start; it appears to be the right one.