When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he would step down from his position and not run for reelection, the news didn’t come as that much of a surprise. Of course, it is a big deal to learn that the most powerful person in Congress is relinquishing their authority. But it is not the first time this has happened.
The truth is that being speaker is not what it used to be. A position that once commanded immense gravitas in the days of Democrat Sam Rayburn, the Texan who ruled the roost during most of the years between 1940 and his death in 1961 (save for the two sessions in 1947 and 1953 when Republicans retook control of Congress), now makes the person holding the job a perpetual target. The puzzle with Congress’s current situation is that in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, congressional reformers in the 1970s had changed the rules and norms of the House so as to centralize power under the speaker with the goal of replacing the fragmented committee system that had empowered conservative Southern Democrats. Despite the reforms, since the downfall of Democrat Jim Wright in May 1989, Congress has seen speakers resign or be forced out so many times that it is difficult to look at the office in the same way.
Why the perpetual instability? Why have speakers struggled to regain the standing they once held in the days of Rayburn, John McCormack, Tip O’Neill, and other legends who amassed great power?
Part of the answer goes back to the congressional reforms of the 1970s. No longer willing to live under the kind of iron-clad authority that committee leaders enjoyed since the early 20th century, younger Democrats and Republicans implemented new rules and norms that would enable the rank-and-file to keep their speakers accountable and on a short leash. Tightened ethics regulations, for instance, offered a powerful tool for members to bring down those in power should they act in corrupt fashion. The purpose of the reforms was to avoid the kind of situation that Congress faced from the 1930s to the 1970s, when a bipartisan coalition of Southern Democratic committee chairs and Republican ranking members—working closely with the speaker—controlled debate in the House and stifled initiatives such as civil rights.