Paul Ryan: Speaker of the House or of the Freedom Caucus?

By Bill Kaplan

Last Thursday GOP Rep. Paul Ryan was elected as speaker of the House (all Wisconsin GOP reps. voted for Ryan). Will Ryan be the speaker of the House and govern, or be for the so-called Freedom Caucus and let obstruction rule?

• The New York Times said: "Ryan's ascent stems not from electoral victory but rather the chaos in the ranks of his party's sizable majority...His problems are less with Democrats, who have deeply opposed his policy ideas..., than in his own party,... (which is) divided over tactics and to some degree ideology, with a sizable number of members often supporting government dysfunction over political compromise;"

• Politico exclaimed: "Ryan will be on a short leash;"

• The Washington Post Fix opined: "Paul Ryan is right about the House being broken. But he probably can't fix it;"

• And, the Washington Post editorialized: "Ryan promised hard-right members of Congress that he would respect the informal 'Hastert Rule', which requires that a majority of the majority party in the House favor a bill for it to get a floor vote. Adherence to the rule unwisely blocks important policies that would win a majority of House members if they came to an up-or-down vote, restricting the House's ability to work on behalf of a majority of Americans."

Outgoing Speaker John Boehner, leaving as a statesman, disregarded the "Hastert Rule" and submitted to the House a bipartisan budget and debt limit compromise to avoid a government shutdown and economic calamity. The agreement modestly raises discretionary spending by $80 billion over two years, "little more than 1 percent per year of the nearly $4 trillion annual federal budget" (New York Times). It also temporarily suspends the debt limit for past federal spending. And, the legislation protects Social Security disability benefits, while preventing an historic increase in Medicare premiums.

Ryan, after initially "blasting" Boehner (Politico), ended up helping to pass the bill, with unanimous Democratic support, including Wisconsin Democratic reps., but with less than half of the GOP caucus. Veering to the hard-right, Ryan's fellow Wisconsin GOP reps. voted no. However, in the Senate, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin and all other Democratic sens. joined 18 GOP sens. and voted yes. True to form, Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson voted no. Nonetheless, governance won and the compromise legislation passed.

Finally, the House voted wisely to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, opposed by the hard-line Freedom Caucus. The bank provides loans to foreign buyers of U.S. goods and credit insurance to U.S. sellers (i.e., jobs). A near unanimous Democratic caucus, including all Wisconsin Democratic reps., and more than half of the GOP caucus, including Wisconsin Reps. Glenn Grothman and Reid Ribble, voted yes. However, Ryan, fellow Wisconsin GOP Reps. Sean Duffy, Jim Sensenbrenner and most of the hard-line Freedom Caucus voted no. But a bipartisan majority prevailed.

Will Paul Ryan be the speaker of the House or be for the Freedom Caucus? Governance or ideological obstruction? 

-- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995 - 2009

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