The End of the Strong Speaker

Paul Ryan’s departure shows how far Congress has come from the heyday of House leaders who tightly controlled their chamber.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

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.

The era of reform quickly gave way to the era of partisan polarization. The divide between the Democrats and Republicans kept growing as there were fewer members in the middle of the two parties. With greater polarization came more intense partisan warfare. More speakers—like Jim Wright—were caught in the crossfire.

In 1989, Wright changed the course of the office when he announced on the House floor that he would resign after partisan attacks from then-Republican Representative Newt Gingrich had morphed into a full-blown ethics investigation and report. Facing a series of accusations that he had violated various ethics laws, Wright decided to leave, urging his colleagues to avoid the “mindless cannibalism” that could consume the institution he loved. His successor, Tom Foley of Washington (whose tenure was almost sidetracked by a nasty Republican National Committee memo from an aide to Lee Atwater and Gingrich implying that he was gay), only lasted for three terms until his constituents voted him out of office during the Republican Revolution of 1994. His opponent took advantage of the outrage toward the Washington establishment, and coasted as voters responded to the call to “De-Foley-ate Congress.”

Once Republicans took control of the House for the first time since 1954, they elected Gingrich to be their leader. He only made it until 1999 when, facing ethics problems of his own, he became a liability to Republicans as they moved to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich’s presumed successor, Louisiana’s Robert Livingston, didn’t even make it to the speaker’s chair. In a dramatic C-SPAN moment, Livingston surprised his colleagues by announcing that he would resign. The news of his own personal affair made him too much of a problem for the party.

The intensified partisan battles produced three transfers of party control (1994, 2006, and 2010), which left two speakers out of a job. Dennis Hastert, whose massive skeletons remained hidden at the time, was able to restore some of the stability and luster of the office, though Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay—who eventually fell to his own scandal—was by most accounts the real power in the House. (Hastert pleaded guilty in 2015 to hiding large payments that were intended to pay off someone who had accused him of sexual abuse and lying to the FBI during an investigation.) After Democrats retook control of the House in 2006, Nancy Pelosi also emerged as a strong speaker, able to control the different factions of her party, though Republicans regained the majority four years later.

Things didn’t get any easier. After three Congresses, Speaker John Boehner announced that he was leaving, no longer able to endure the confrontational style of his rambunctious Tea Party colleagues. Ryan, Boehner’s successor, has expressed similar frustration with his party’s right flank, particularly with the fallout from the recent big spending-budget deal.

Ryan and Boehner’s troubles show how the speakership was particularly diminished with the entrance of the Tea Party Republicans in 2010. Former President Obama was taken aback in 2011 when they seriously threatened to send the nation into default over a spending dispute. The Tea Party Republicans were a ferocious bunch of legislators who believed in doing whatever was necessary to achieve their objectives. They expressed no tolerance for any leader, even one of their own, who tried to stop them. Any leader who stood in their way was just part of the allegedly corrupt Washington establishment. Led by Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, the Tea Party Republicans—now known as the Freedom Caucus—have practiced a kind of smash-mouth approach to legislative politics, inspired by Gingrich, that has made them a force to be reckoned with in Washington.

Speaker Boehner, who thought that he could ultimately control his rambunctious colleagues, learned that he was wrong. Facing the threat of being ousted from the job because he, despite being a staunch conservative on most key issues, was accused of being too willing to compromise with a Democratic president, Boehner decided to leave of his own accord. Explaining how he had been able to stay on the job until September 2015, he told one reporter: “Garbage Men get used to the smell of bad garbage. Prisoners learn how to become prisoners. … You can teach yourself to do anything, especially if you’re committed to a cause.”

The search to replace Boehner was not pretty. California Republican Kevin McCarthy was blocked because Tea Party Republicans did not think that he was conservative enough. McCarthy also created a stir by publicly stating that the Republican Benghazi investigation was an attempt to hurt Hillary Clinton’s standing ahead of the 2016 election. The Freedom Caucus accepted Paul Ryan only as a last-resort compromise, since there was nobody else who could win majority support within the GOP. The good news for them was that Ryan’s policy agenda was extraordinarily conservative. This heavy-metal-loving champion of gutting entitlements for the elderly and slashing corporate taxes might have looked more polished than some of his Freedom Caucus brethren, but on most big issues they were pretty much on the same page.

Ryan didn’t have much fun on the job either. From day one, the Freedom Caucus was hot on his trail. Although he was able move his corporate tax cut through Congress this year, he has struggled to placate Freedom Caucus members who have been unwilling to work with him on areas of possible compromise outside of the tax cut. Indeed, Ryan has faced a double threat in that the president of the United States is now a Republican who is not the most reliable ally for inter-branch cooperation in the legislative process. For Trump also practices Tea Party-style political combat by doing whatever is necessary to win, ignoring all the conventional rules of decorum that are often necessary for negotiation and compromise. The result has been a stormy tenure. Since 2015, there have been constant threats of a potential coup from the Freedom Caucus. The tensions only dissipated in 2017 when Ryan agreed to ally with them on a draconian health-care proposal (that failed), only to anger them again with a recent budget deal that significantly increased federal spending and the deficit. “I can’t believe Paul Ryan, a former Budget Chairman, is gonna do that [to us],” Congressman Jordan complained.

While Ryan attributes his decision to step down to wanting to spend more time with his family, it is undoubtedly true that the attraction of keeping the job was vastly diminished by the frustration of trying to tame his Freedom Caucus brethren. Ryan, according John Lawrence, the former Pelosi chief of staff and author of The Class of ‘74, “leaves behind a president who adds another trophy of the Washington elite to his wall. He leaves behind a House that has lost institutional capacity and public respect. He leaves behind a Conference that is divided and ineffective, one that may well spend much of the rest of this year deciding who might next inherit the job Ryan leaves, or the job he perhaps feared: Minority Leader.”

The absence of a strong speaker has substantial costs on governance. Congress is always an extraordinarily difficult institution. By design, it is does not move speedily and it creates many points to block progress. In a bifurcated institution without clear centers of power, moving legislation has always proven to be arduous. With an executive branch that has vastly expanded in power since the early 20th century, and an electorate that is increasingly divided along party lines, effective governance requires some sort of centralizing force that can help to bring about compromise and push back against the more destructive forces in the House and the Senate—and now the White House.

A strong speaker is an important part of the solution to America’s democratic illnesses. While the nation certainly doesn’t need the kind of unaccountable leadership that Congress experienced in earlier eras, the steady erosion of the speakership is not healthy for the institution. Someone has to take charge in an increasingly dysfunctional Capitol Hill. Ryan’s departure is a reminder that without strong leadership, the dysfunction in Congress will just keep getting worse.