Paul Ryan is likely to be chosen as Republicans’ nominee for Speaker of the House on Wednesday, and elected by the full chamber on Thursday, in a vote that will undoubtedly break along party lines. As Republican votes alone will be enough to hand Ryan the Speakership, it should come as no surprise that he will be expected to use his power to advance his party’s agenda, ahead of any other goals. However, the position of Speaker need not be used in this way. Lessons from state chambers and recent Congressional history illustrate how the power of strong partisan leaders restricts legislative efficiency and inter-party cooperation.
Writing in Politico last week, former congressman Mickey Edwards discussed his experience working in the House under Speaker Tip O’Neill. While O’Neill was seen as a liberal and fierce partisan, he was not in the habit of blocking bills or amendments just because they originated with the minority party. If a measure could win the support of a majority in the chamber, O’Neil would not stand in its way. Edwards argues that House speakers once thought of themselves as leaders of the full chamber, not representatives of the majority party. The decline of this perspective has led subsequent Speakers to block legislation that requires significant bipartisan support, and employ procedures like “closed rules” that shut the minority party out of the legislative process, effectively disenfranchising the millions of voters they represent.
Evidence from state legislatures supports the idea that partisan leaders wielding power over the legislative agenda can have a negative impact. Research presented in Best Practices for Collaborative Policymaking, a report from FairVote and the Bipartisan Policy Center, shows that chambers in which leaders are able to block bills pass less legislation, and less bipartisan legislation.
Recent proposals of the House Freedom Caucus did seek to devolve some of the Speaker’s power to rank-and-file members. But, as we explained in Roll Call last week, these changes would compound current dysfunction by empowering members of the Republican Party only. Meaningful reform would democratize power within the chamber by empowering all members to work together to advance legislation, regardless of the preferences of party leaders. Unfortunately, Paul Ryan has made no efforts to build support across party lines, and has shown little interest in creating a House in which priorities are set more democratically. To borrow the words of Rep. Edwards, the likely result is that we will remain without a true Speaker of the House, but with another Speaker for House Republicans.