Early last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke to members of the Congressional Black Caucus and acknowledged his support for new voting rights protections. A CBC member asked the Republican leader why he doesn't just instruct the House Judiciary Committee to move forward on pending legislation. "Look, I can't do that
," the Speaker reportedly replied.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Calif.) soon after issued a statement
responding to Ryan's claim that he "can't" work with Democrats on this issue. "Well, actually, he can," the Maryland Democrat said. "He's the Speaker of the House!"
The trouble is how Ryan prefers to lead -- which generally means not leading at all. This Speaker believes in leaving vast power in the hands of committee chairs, even if their priorities differ from those of the party.
We're seeing this dynamic unfold right now with Congress' attempt at responding to the opioid crisis. The Huffington Post reported
At least from a distance, things look good for the opioid bill, known as the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. It passed 94-1 in the Senate; House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters his party would be happy to have the bill go directly to the House floor under a suspension of regular rules, which requires a two-thirds vote; it has overwhelming support in the House. With the speaker's strong and emotional support, what could go wrong?
As it turns out, everything. Ryan takes the issue seriously, and believes the Senate did the right thing, but he doesn't want to simply bring the Senate bill to the floor for passage -- because it doesn't fit into his legislative procedural model.
Instead, Ryan is sending the bill to committee, where it's facing far-right resistance.
[T]he problem for the House is that its more conservative members are still committed to an enforcement-first, war-on-drugs approach to the opioid crisis.... Of course, the committee could take up [the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act], debate it, amend it and send it back to the Senate. But the new form it would take would likely reflect the hard-line bent of the House GOP conference.
It's worth noting that many modern House Speakers, from both parties, have endorsed the idea of governing through "regular order," which largely defers to committee chairs to proceed on legislation as they see fit, but each of these Speakers found it necessary to streamline the process for the sake of convenience. If the House needed to act on some important piece of legislation, the chamber's leadership wasn't inclined to let some committee chair hold up the nation's business.
Ryan, however, committed to letting the House work through regular order, and at least for now, he's sticking to it. If an important piece of legislation passed the Senate 94 to 1, too bad -- it's up to the relevant House committee to decide whether or not to act. If the committee's Republicans don't like the necessary legislation, it will not proceed, regardless of Ryan's preferences.
The Speaker of the House, in other words, is experimenting with leading from behind. Ryan is ostensibly in charge of what happens in the chamber, but he's deferring to others below him to actually make the key decisions. If that means national priorities go unmet, so be it.
The Wisconsin Republican is scheduled to deliver a speech at 11 a.m. (ET) on the state of American politics. Perhaps he'll take a moment to explain why his chamber is getting so little done thanks to his preferred approach to governing.