As Speaker, Paul Ryan May Inherit a House in Disarray

In the past, congressional ideologues wanted party discipline and centralized power. Now, they want anything but.


Even if Rep. Paul Ryan’s conditional willingness to accept the speakership ends the extended leadership struggle among House Republicans, the weeks of turmoil mark a turning point in the centralization of power that has transformed Congress.

Over the past generation, starting with the post-Watergate reforms from Democratic liberals in the 1970s and accelerating rapidly after Republicans seized Congress in 1994, the House has been re-made into an increasingly polarized and quasi-parliamentary institution. Especially since the 1990s, the defining characteristic of this congressional era has been a hardening of party discipline enforced by increasingly centralized direction from party leadership.

The uprising among conservative House Republicans, which felled Speaker John Boehner and upended his succession, challenges that dynamic. The conservative insurgents revolving around the so-called Freedom Caucus have sought not only to install an ideologically sympathetic speaker but also to constrain any future speaker’s ability to punish dissent. Even a Ryan ascension wouldn’t permanently dam that current.

This marks a great historical irony. The hard-right Freedom Caucus has pushed to weaken the speakership and to diffuse more power to committees and individual members. Previously, the House’s most ideological elements have always led the drive to centralize power.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, Democratic reformers sought to bolster the leadership’s power as a way to curtail the influence of conservative Southern Democrats, who stymied a liberal agenda even while their party controlled the House. In those years, both chambers of Congress awarded committee chairmanships entirely through seniority. Because Republicans had not yet cracked the one-party South, the Southern Democrats typically amassed more seniority than their Northern colleagues. That allowed Southerners in both chambers to dominate the key chairmanships, even though many of them routinely voted against the party majority, not only on civil rights but on many other domestic issues.

Democrats elected in the 1974 post-Watergate landslide engineered a rules change for picking committee chairs (first in the House, then in the Senate) to replace seniority with a secret vote of the chamber’s party membership. That shift strengthened party discipline because it meant legislators could not excessively defy the party consensus and still rise to lead committees.

House Democrats quickly used the new power to unseat two aged Southern chairmen but employed it only gingerly after that. The centralization of authority didn’t truly intensify until Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995. The Georgia Republican, seizing personal control of the appointment process, signaled his authority by bypassing the most senior member of three committees in filling the chairmanship. Gingrich’s successors, Republicans and Democrats alike, continued to centralize control in the speakership—over appointments, the party message, and the House agenda. Tom Davis, a shrewd Virginia Republican who served in the House from 1995 to 2008, summed up the incentives for legislators in both parties under the new system when he said, “It is very clear that you [now] ascend by loyalty.”

This shift dovetailed with other structural changes that promoted party discipline. More overtly partisan media on both the Left and the Right put pressure on legislators who veered from the party consensus. Internet fundraising allowed activist groups to bankroll more challenges in primary elections against incumbents viewed as ideologically suspect. These factors combined with the internal centralization of authority to produce the highest level of party-line voting in Congress since the early 20th century, a quasi-parliamentary system that saw the two parties vote in virtual lockstep against each other on most major issues. More discipline within the parties meant more conflict between them.

But this regimented system started cracking even before the latest confrontation over the speakership. Already on nine occasions, Boehner has been compelled to pass critical legislation—including one to avoid the “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012—with votes from Democrats because too many conservative Republicans refused to support him. Now, the Freedom Caucus is seeking changes in procedural rules that would diminish the speaker’s influence over committee assignments and protect members who oppose the leadership on important votes. As Rep. Barry Loudermilk, a Georgia Republican, put it recently, “How are we going to make it a more bottom-up versus a top-down structure?”

In theory, a more bottom-up House might open the space for productive compromise. In practice, however, the Freedom Caucus insurgents are seeking more protection to reject compromise and to pursue confrontation. Many of them represent districts heavy with the same disaffected white working-class voters fueling Donald Trump’s rise, and they express the same disdain that he does for conventional political deal-making. Cumulatively, their proposed rule changes would provide the GOP’s conservative vanguard additional leverage to block the party from reaching any agreements with President Obama or with Democrats. With that as the goal, more freedom in the House would likely produce only more chaos.

If Ryan takes the gavel, his prestige may temporarily suppress the demands from his right. But no House speaker is likely to corral this fractious Republican majority for long. The deference to leadership that produced two decades of historic party discipline has ended—and what comes next may prove even more volatile.