U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept.22, 2016. 
Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Paul Ryan retreats following ill-advised fight with House chaplain

Updated

The trouble started with, of all things, a prayer. In November, as Republicans were moving forward with their regressive tax cuts, the Rev. Patrick Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest and the House chaplain for the last several years, delivered a prayer on the chamber floor urging lawmakers to ensure that the tax plan’s benefits be “balanced and shared by all Americans.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is also a Roman Catholic, privately expressed his dissatisfaction to the chaplain. As Conroy recalled to the New York Times, the House Speaker told the priest, “Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”

Ryan ultimately asked for Conroy’s resignation – a first in American history for a House chaplain – and the Jesuit obliged, assuming he didn’t have much of a choice. But following an “old-fashioned religious feud” on Capitol Hill, the chaplain changed his mind, un-resigned, and effectively dared the GOP leader to fire him. Yesterday afternoon, the Speaker retreated.

Speaker Paul Ryan reversed himself Thursday and said that the Rev. Patrick Conroy, the chaplain of the House of Representatives whom Ryan forced out of his position last month, can keep his job.

Ryan’s announcement came shortly after Conroy told Ryan that he was rescinding his resignation…. “I have accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as Chaplain of the House,” Ryan, R-Wis., said in a statement Thursday.

By any fair measure, that was the appropriate decision, though the resolution doesn’t change the fact that Ryan picked a pointless fight for no reason – and lost badly.

When the Speaker first tried to push the chaplain out, neither Ryan nor his office offered a public explanation for the decision. Indeed, it wasn’t altogether clear whether the Speaker even has the authority to unilaterally tell a House chaplain his services are no longer required.

Eventually, Ryan said about decision, “This was not about politics or prayers, it was about pastoral services. And a number of our members felt like the pastoral services were not being adequately served, or offered.”

And while that may sound like a vaguely legitimate reason, according to Conroy, who has no incentive to lie, that wasn’t the explanation the Speaker’s office gave him. In his letter to congressional leaders yesterday, retracting his resignation, the chaplain told Ryan, “While you never spoke with me in person, nor did you send me any correspondence, on Friday, April 13th, 2018, your Chief of Staff, Jonathan Burks, came to me and informed me that you were asking for my letter of resignation. I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,’ and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like ‘maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.’ He also mentioned my November prayer [about taxes] and an interview with the National Journal Daily.”

He added, “I have never been disciplined, nor reprimanded, nor have I ever heard a complaint about my ministry during my time as House chaplain.”

One gets the sense Conroy has some concerns about the accuracy of Ryan’s version of events.

So what are we left with? A retiring Speaker with waning power tried to oust his chamber’s chaplain, creating an unnecessary and divisive religious controversy, and he may not have been entirely truthful about his motivation. Ryan promptly faced a bipartisan backlash from House members, only to eventually back down when the chaplain defied the Republican leader’s wishes.

Keep in mind, the Speaker could’ve easily avoided the entire mess, leaving his successor to help choose the next House chaplain. But Ryan picked this fight anyway, for reasons that remain unclear.

The Wisconsin congressman has faced some pressure about stepping down before the end of his term, but the Speaker has insisted that won’t happen. I wonder if, right about now, he’s giving his options a second look.

Postscript: I continue to believe this controversy should serve as a reminder that it’s time for a debate about why there’s a taxpayer-financed chaplain in Congress.