Paul Ryan
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Congressional Democrats found themselves in an awkward position after they lost control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms. The problem was compounded when they lost control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms. They had a Democrat in the Oval Office and they wanted to protect him, and that meant in part that they didn’t want Congress to become completely dysfunctional. While their ability to control the appropriations process was impaired after 2010, it was almost completely eliminated after 2014. I say “almost” because they still have some leverage. House Speaker John Boehner could not command enough Republican votes to pass the appropriations bills his caucus created, especially when they had to be melded with more moderate versions that could get around Democratic filibusters in the Senate. Boehner had the same problem raising the debt ceiling. He needed to rely on Democratic votes to keep the government operating and creditworthy.

This created an odd situation in which the Republicans did not pass their own spending bills, and yet they didn’t want to give the Democrats much of a say in what would be in those spending bills. The Democrats could have tried to drive a harder bargain, but they were hindered by their desire to make it look like President Obama could govern without chaos. So, they consistently provided votes for bills that did not reflect their values.

This worked for Boehner for a while. He got a better deal that he had any right to expect, and he didn’t allow the country to default on its debts or suffer through repeated and protracted shutdowns. But it violated a norm called the Hastert Rule. Named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, the rule stated that no bill would come up for a vote unless a majority of the Republican caucus supported it. But most Republicans were voting against raising the debt ceiling, and most Republicans were voting against their own spending bills. Boehner had no choice but to violate the Hastert Rule repeatedly, and every time that he did, he lost a little more support from his own caucus.

It all came to a head in September 2015. By that time, it looked like the only way that he could remain Speaker in 2016 would be if he relied on the same Democratic votes that had been passing his bills for him. And that would have required that Boehner give up on the idea that he was a leader of the Republican caucus in the House and also some kind of power sharing arrangement with the Democrats where they had more say in the appropriations process. I wrote many columns in 2014 and 2015 recommending that Boehner explore that exact course and predicting that he was doomed if he did not. In the end, though, he was too loyal to the GOP to make such a bold move. He decided to offer his own head as a sacrifice in order to avoid a default and shutdown one last time.

When Paul Ryan replaced him as Speaker, I predicted the same fate would befall him in short order, and it probably would have if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. With Trump in the Oval Office, Ryan’s problems were different in kind. He had abandoned Trump after the Access Hollywood tape was revealed, and he was already on Steve Bannon’s personal hit list before that happened. Nonetheless, he was able to avoid a direct frontal attack on his leadership and even to sell the president on a highly dubious legislative strategy involving passing two budgets in a single fiscal year that was supposed to allow the Republicans to both repeal Obamacare and do a big tax reform without the need of a single Democratic vote.

It’s too early to say whether the tax reform part of that plan will pan out, but I am not surprised to learn that rumors are swirling around the Capitol that Ryan will soon resign. The basic idea is that if he can get the tax cuts through he will have achieved his main goal. Everything else will be a headache he doesn’t need. Just like Boehner, he’ll need to go to the Democrats to get the votes he needs to pay our debts and keep the government operating, but this time the Democrats don’t have a president in the White House that they want to protect. Ryan can’t get their votes so easily.

So, the surest way out is to do what Boehner did, which was to cut a big deal with the Democrats that would have never passed muster with his own caucus unless it was accompanied by his resignation. In this case, that deal might involve DACA. If you’ve followed my writing for at least a couple of years, you’ll hardly be surprised to see this:

The speculation over Ryan’s next move [possible resignation] has particularly intensified as Republicans negotiate spending deals with Democrats. Ryan has repeatedly pushed off the possibility that a legislative solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program will be attached to a government spending agreement, but conservatives are worried Republicans could finish their tax bill, have the speaker announce his retirement and then watch Ryan do the same kind of “barn cleaning” that Boehner did at the end of his speakership.

The last deal to raise spending caps for two years, in fact, was set under Boehner. Republicans and Democrats are reportedly close to a deal now to once again raise those spending limits for another two years, but conservatives are becoming increasingly certain this isn’t a bill they’ll support.

Ryan’s leaving could pave the way for Republicans to swallow a January spending deal with mostly Democratic votes, perhaps raise the debt ceiling again ― another thing Boehner did as he headed for the exit ― and potentially find a DACA fix.

I’d like to reiterate that passing a bill with mostly Democratic votes is a lot easier to do when there is a Democratic president. If Boehner felt he had to resign to get a deal in 2015, Ryan will be in at least as big of a jam in 2017 or early 2018. Ryan’s only advantage is that he isn’t yet a repeat offender, and it was really the fact that Boehner had to go to the well multiple times that sealed his fate.

So, it’s not far-fetched that Ryan might see the wisdom of pulling a Boehner here. If he gets his tax bill, he can say that he did as much as he could to starve the government down to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. He can take a victory lap, and leave the mess for someone else to clean up.

The fact that Ryan clearly has practical and moral qualms about the judgment and character of the president is just one more reason to get out of Dodge before he has to answer for something truly catastrophic.

If the tax cuts go through, Ryan will have far fewer reasons to stay than to go.

Martin Longman

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