Meet Paul Ryan's Kitchen Cabinet
The new speaker has three circles of close House allies, and fittingly, they're very different from his predecessor's.
House Speaker John Boehner and his inner circle were known to bond over fine wine, linguine, and cigarettes. For Speaker Paul Ryan and his closest friends, it’s financial policy, Greek yogurt, and sit-ups.
Unlike Boehner and his congressional confidants, who met in smoky rooms over dinner and drinks, the GOP’s new golden boy prefers more wholesome interactions. He eschews the backslapping, country-club Republican archetype in favor of early-morning workouts, policy breakfasts, and family hunting trips.
Although he has been a congressman for almost two decades, his relationships on Capitol Hill are not as much of an open book as Boehner’s. Ryan works late hours, sleeps in his office, and travels home every weekend, so his Washington social life is almost nonexistent. Instead, Ryan has built a circle of friends and advisors in the House around three passions: policy, fitness, and family.
“It’s a different model. Boehner was sitting back smoking cigarettes and drinking wine and eating dinner and had this clutch of smoking buddies that he’d built up over 20 years,” said Rep. Sean Duffy, a fellow Wisconsin Republican and one of Ryan’s closest friends in the House. “Paul is focused on policy, and so when you focus on policy, you sort of wrap yourself around the team that helps build that policy.”
The Jedi Council
When House Republicans were still in the minority, Ryan was involved in a weekly bicameral breakfast to discuss conservative policy. Although the cast of characters changed over the years, two have remained constant: Reps. Tom Price and Jeb Hensarling.
Both were at times Ryan’s right-hand man when he was the top Budget Committee Republican. It was little surprise that when Ryan released his first Path to Prosperity budget in 2008, both men were among the eight original cosponsors.
“Some viewed it as politically precarious stuff,” Hensarling said of the budget. “But I had respected him and admired him for so long that I didn’t think about it too long. … I told him, ‘Paul, if you’ve got the courage to do this, I’m not going to let you do it alone, because you’re right, and you sleep better at night when you do what’s right.’”
More recently, the three men began meeting as a group that came to be known as the Jedi Council. Including Rep. Jim Jordan and later Rep. Steve Scalise, these conservatives thought they could bridge divisions between leadership and hard-line Republicans.
Eventually, Scalise was elected to leadership, Jordan went on to cofound the House Freedom Caucus, and the group disbanded. But Ryan became Ways and Means Chairman, Hensarling took the Financial Services gavel and Price succeeded Ryan as Budget chair, and they started weekly meetings again.
“To some extent we missed the value of each other’s counsel. I’ve always enjoyed being able to talk to Paul and Tom about things that I’m doing on Financial Services,” Hensarling said. “It sort of morphed into a bit of a sounding board. And there’s a friendship element to it. We enjoy each other’s company.”
Unlike Boehner, who was known to schmooze with his chums, the three keep the discussions focused strictly on policy and procedure. Although the meetings have taken a hiatus since Ryan became speaker, Hensarling and Price have his ear—and high hopes for wide-ranging changes on his watch, from tax reform to housing policy.
“We’re just kindred souls who got together sometimes to discuss the topic of the day, sometimes to discuss bigger issues,” Price said. “Each of us have our own policy passions and have a desire together to assist in whatever way we’re able to move the country in a better direction.”
There’s also another key difference from Boehner’s meetings: “8:30 in the morning is a little early for Merlot. I don’t think any of us have ever smoked,” Hensarling said. Price added, “He got us to start eating Greek yogurt … and granola and the like. So he’s very influential.”
The Gym Rats
Ryan is known as a health nut, and the gym is his central to his social circle. That may be in part because it is the one place on Capitol Hill where he cannot talk about policy. There, at 6:30 every weekday morning, he leads a workout group where members do P90X, Insanity, yoga, spin, or other kinds of exercise.
“It’s an unwritten [rule], just leave the work stuff at work,” said Rep. Tom Graves, one of Ryan’s close congressional friends and a member of his exercise group—and a triathlete. “What makes it nice is that it’s just personal. It’s us just hanging out, working out, talking family, talking about sports.”
“That’s been sort of crossed lately with all the leadership stuff going on, but we’re getting back to that,” added Rep. Markwayne Mullin, who leads a separate circuit-training group that Ryan joins on Fridays. “Typically we didn’t talk about politics at all. If we did, that’s all that would be done down there. You might as well turn it into a committee at that point.”
Graves has family in Wisconsin, while Mullin represents the district that houses Ryan's father-in-law’s ranch, where Ryan vacations and hunts. The district, in fact, used to be represented by Rep. Dan Boren, who is Ryan’s wife’s cousin.
“There’s three things that started in common with us: Family is on the top of both of our lists. … Then, of course, workouts and the work ethic,” Mullin said, although he stressed that he is not in the P90X group, saying, “We call that the dance routine.”
“Paul doesn’t go out and do a lot of things in the evening," Mullin added. "He doesn’t have a lot of hobbies outside of working out and being with his family. That’s my hobbies too.”
Mullin said Ryan visits his sons when he brings them to the Hill and said they often send photos of hunting trips with their young children. It’s little surprise, then, that when Mullin’s name was called on the House floor to vote for Ryan, his 10-year-old boy, Andrew, enthusiastically answered instead.
“I said, ‘Boys, if you’d like to, you can stand up with me when I vote, when they call my name.’ And Andrew just busted right up—'Paul Ryan!'” Mullin recalled. “Andrew said, ‘Well Dad, I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do. He’s my friend.’”
Ryan has also served as a mentor. Mullin said he consulted Ryan when he decided to run for majority whip. And Graves said Ryan helped him get a seat on the Appropriations Committee, even though he was known as a fiscal hawk.
“He sort of took me under his wing and whether it be P90X or it be policy, he was there to show me the ropes,” Graves said. In turn, Ryan has an ear in Graves. Ryan called him the Sunday before he became speaker, Graves said.
“I’m like, ‘What are you doing? You have a few days of freedom left.’ He said ‘You won’t believe it, let me tell you. Today I had the wife and the kids and my mom and I was driving the minivan—knowing that today might be one of the last days that I’m driving the minivan, because once I leave Wisconsin everything changes. … And I was sitting in the deer stand knowing today might be the last day I sit in the deer stand for a little while in solitude,’” Graves said.
Although many in his inner circle are young members with young families whom he helps mentor, Ryan has a mentor as well in Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. In fact, when members were hounding Ryan to run for speaker, he took respite on the House floor next to Sensenbrenner, who members said is known as so crabby that others wouldn’t bother Ryan if he was sitting next to him.
Sensenbrenner was instrumental in pushing Ryan to make the ultimate decision to run, said Duffy, although Duffy said he and his wife texted Ryan’s wife to convey the importance of Ryan’s candidacy to her, knowing that ultimately she would have the most influence over his decision.
“Jim was a big part of pushing Paul into the position of ‘Yes,’ on the speakership. ... There’s no ulterior motive that Jim has in advising Ryan about what the right thing to do is,” Duffy said.
The three men meet over dinner and sometimes host visiting Wisconsin dignitaries. Where Sensenbrenner has mentored Ryan, Ryan mentors Duffy. Their children have come to be friends, getting together in Wisconsin or Washington. And as someone with seven children, Duffy said having someone of Ryan’s stature stress work-life balance has been important to him.
“Even though we’re of a similar age, I look up to him as a guy who did it right,” Duffy said. “You should do as much work as you can in Washington. You can get consumed with a lot of outside activities or you can buckle down and work as much as possible, which will reduce the workload back home.”