Paul Ryan
Credit: Tony Alter/Flickr

It’s painful to read the two posts I wrote last October explaining why I believed that Paul Ryan’s career as Speaker of the House was coming to an end. The analysis was solid, but it was premised on Hillary Clinton winning the presidency. When she lost, it gave Ryan a lifeline. It could turn out, in the end, that Ryan lasts longer than Mitch McConnell.

In truth, though, I still think of Ryan as the more endangered of the two, and the reason is primarily because McConnell does a better job of controlling his caucus. The reason I thought Ryan was done last October was that he was facing the same situation that had confounded John Boehner, which was primarily an inability to raise the debt ceiling or pass appropriations bills without relying on Democratic votes. It doesn’t look like Ryan is going to be able to do accomplish these things this year, either, even though he has a Republican in the White House instead of Barack Obama.

So, in this sense, what I wrote last year hasn’t changed:

If the Republicans do hang on to a narrower majority in the House and Paul Ryan seeks and gains the Speaker’s gavel again in the next Congress, he’ll immediately discover that he simply cannot pass spending bills without resorting to mostly Democratic votes, which will lead rather quickly to the same situation that Boehner found himself in where he was constantly under threat of being deposed. Ryan surely knows all this.

And the situation this year looks much like how I described the situation last year:

John Boehner fell as speaker because he could not get a majority of his own caucus to pass his spending bills and he could not get a majority of his caucus to pay our country’s debts on time. When Boehner agreed to step down, the Republicans came together to pass last year’s appropriations and to raise the debt limit as the price of being rid of him. That solved the problem for last year, but it didn’t solve the underlying problem. That’s why Kevin McCarthy wasn’t an acceptable replacement for Boehner. It’s also why no other Republican could step forward and win the support from enough Republicans to win the Speakership. The job was forced on Paul Ryan over his steady objections for the simple reason that no one else had the stature to win enough votes.

Since this is an election year, the Congressional Republicans have been willing to let this fight over debt and spending simmer on a back burner. After all, if their nominee becomes president, then they won’t be in this position of responsibility for funding the government of a Democratic president. But that doesn’t mean Speaker Ryan has had an easy time of it. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell haven’t been able to pass one stand-alone appropriations bill all year. In fact, Ryan didn’t even pass a budget, which is something Boehner always managed to do.

Isn’t it amazing that Clinton lost and yet we’re still in such a similar situation? Neither the House nor the Senate has passed a budget and while the House just passed four appropriations bills, they will certainly fail in the Senate. And they still have no plan for raising the debt ceiling with only Republican votes.

Talks between the White House and the Senate’s top Republican and Democrat broke up Tuesday with no progress on raising the country’s debt ceiling, an impasse that threatens a financial crisis if left unresolved.

The Senate and House have 12 joint working days before Sept. 29, when the Treasury Department says it would no longer be able to pay all of the government’s bills unless Congress acts. A default would likely set off a major disruption to the world financial system, with a stock market crash and surging interest rates that could send the economy into a recession.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has urged Congress for months to raise the debt limit, but the White House has lacked a unified message and run into resistance on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and Republicans are at odds on key tax and spending issues.

So little has changed, and one has to wonder if the same logic that led the House conservatives to oust Boehner will catch up with Ryan shortly if he can’t pull several rabbits out of his hat.

So far, McConnell’s failures have been both more visible and more epic, but he can get his members to vote to raise the debt ceiling. If he needs to go to the Democrats for a few votes, his caucus is more sophisticated and understanding than is Ryan’s. He also has a better relationship with the White House since his wife serves in the Cabinet. Steve Bannon once vowed to destroy Paul Ryan, and that was before Ryan abandoned Trump in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape. Plus, Ryan’s best friend in the administration was Reince Priebus, who just got shit-canned for selling Ryan’s failed plan to use reconciliation to pass health care reform.

Ryan’s best job security is the thing that got him the gavel in the first place, which is that the Republicans couldn’t agree to any alternative Speaker. But he’s going to start groveling before Pelosi soon in a very unseemly manner, and I don’t know how well that will be tolerated.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at