U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is followed by members of the media as he leaves after a meeting with Republican Study Committee, Oct. 20, 2015 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. 
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty

Speaker Ryan prioritizes messaging, not policymaking

When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told his GOP colleagues that he’d consider becoming Speaker of the House, the congressman made clear he had certain expectations about his responsibilities. Ryan told Republicans, for example, he would not be a prolific fundraiser; he wouldn’t do a lot of traveling; and he didn’t intend to spend a lot of time talking to donors.
Ryan did, however, tell his conference that there would be a trade-off: he’d delegate these traditional Speaker’s duties to others, and instead focus on improving congressional Republicans’ messaging and the dissemination of the party’s national vision.
The party, broadly speaking, was satisfied with the plan Ryan had in mind, and the new Speaker is wasting no time implementing his strategy. The Wisconsin Republican hit all five Sunday shows yesterday – pulling off the so-called “Full Ginsburg” – and soon after, Politico reported on Ryan’s newly beefed up communications team.
Speaker Paul Ryan has hired eight communications staffers as he builds what he promises will be a large-scale press shop to lead the GOP messaging operation.
Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he’ll spend a lot of time on television communicating the party’s message. He plans to hire upward of a dozen communications hands.
It’s a fairly impressive roster of GOP communications pros, who’ll tackle press outreach, speechwriting, online messaging, and related media responsibilities.
What Ryan has not done is expand his policymaking team – and that’s what makes this story important.
I can appreciate why coverage of congressional staff may seem at first blush to be both boring and the ultimate in inside-baseball. But bear with me; this is going somewhere.
We talked last year about a Washington Monthly story on Republicans making Congress “stupid” by gutting Capitol Hill staff. The deliberate shift began with the Gingrich Revolution in the mid-1990s, when the new GOP majority went on a firing binge, getting rid of lawyers, economists, investigators, auditors, analysts, and perhaps most notably, subject-matter experts.
After House Republicans took the majority in 2011, they went even further.
There have been a variety of consequences to these staffing changes, intended to show GOP lawmakers’ commitment to “cutting big government,” most notably the fact that Congress has deliberately left itself ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of policymaking.
But there’s an exception to the broader pattern. Remember this USA Today piece from July 2014?
Members of Congress are putting your money where their mouths are.
Since Republicans took control of the U.S. House in January 2011, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has led a cost-cutting effort that has trimmed staff for House committees by nearly 20%, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But the number of committee staff responsible for press and communications work has increased by nearly 15% over the same period, according to House spending records.
In early 2010, Democratic-led House committees had 1,570 staffers, 74 of whom dealt with press or communications. In early 2014, the Republican-led House committees had shrunk the overall staff by roughly 300 people, while increasing the press/communications team from 74 to 85.
In 1997, when the House Oversight Committee was hunting President Clinton, it had 121 staffers, two of whom worked on media. In 2014, when the House Oversight Committee was hunting President Obama, it had 108 staffers, 10 of whom work on media.
And now Paul Ryan is getting settled in the Speaker’s office – and hiring a small army of taxpayer-funded Republican media professionals.
What we have, in other words, is a congressional majority that is quite literally less invested in governing and more invested in public relations. Ideally, we’d expect to see policymakers focused on policy, and legislators prioritizing legislation.
But that’s plainly not the case. Messaging – talking points, speeches, press statements, soundbites, et al – takes precedence.
Those hoping a Ryan-led chamber would mean a transition to a wonky, policy-focused House should probably start adjusting their expectations accordingly.