Imagining a Paul Ryan speakership

Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 22, 2015

Imagining a Paul Ryan speakership

Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 22, 2015

Republicans in the House of Representatives are slowly preparing to anoint Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as the speaker. Or, really, convince him to become the speaker — he’s not thrilled with the prospect, reportedly. 

The speakership is one of the most difficult, but also one of the most powerful, jobs on Capitol Hill, and Ryan has a deep interest in conservative economic policy. What would a Paul Ryan speakership look like?

“Paul Ryan has been a fiscal conservative, but he has also been a compromiser, and he has worked across the aisle,” said Lindsay Koshgarian, research director at the nonpartisan National Priorities Project.

Ryan has set himself apart to a certain extent, Koshgarian said, by pushing issues like poverty reduction to the forefront. But he has done so in the framework of conservative political and economic principles.

“He had his upbringing working for Jack Kemp, a long-standing member of the House in the ’80s, and developed through that association a sense that the government does have a role to play in running government programs — a viewpoint that at least on the surface puts him at odds with a lot of his conservative colleagues in the House,” said Corey Boles, Eurasia Group analyst.

So what to expect from a Speaker Ryan?

“A safe pair of hands,” according to Boles. What he means is that Ryan can steer clear of total legislative meltdowns and stalemates.

“We are heading very quickly towards a series of fiscal deadlines here in Washington — what level and how to fund the government, the appropriate level of defense funding, a formula for federal highway funding — really tricky matters to wrestle with,” Boles said.

Two years ago, Ryan worked with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington state, to blunt the impact of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. That deal is expiring at the end of the year, and renegotiating it will be contentious.

“People will see whether a Speaker Ryan is going to be able to usher in a Ryan-Murray 2.0 deal to see whether there can be another agreement,” said Koshgarian. “This is a time when bipartisanship is desperately needed.”

Some analysts and politicians view Ryan as that savior.

“Ryan’s one of the few people who has the political smarts and respect of his Republican colleagues in the House to navigate those fiscal shoals and avoid a government shutdown,” Boles said. 

But avoiding problems is one thing, making things happen is another. Michael Strain, economist at the American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks Ryan would be able to move the needle on some big issues, but not by too much.  

“Paul Ryan as the speaker makes things like Medicare reform or tax reform marginally more likely,” Strain said. 

That’s in part, he said, because Ryan is more intimately familiar with these issues than many of his colleagues. He’s recently been trying to hash out a deal with Democrats on reforming tax rates for companies’ overseas earnings.  As speaker, he could help push these items onto the table. 

That does not mean, however, that he can make these things become law.

“Legislation capable of moving through the senate with 60 votes is unlikely to emerge, because he’s going to need also 124 Republicans in the House to support it,” said Henrietta Treyz, an analyst with Height Securities. “There just aren’t that many middle-of-the-road Republicans right now.”

Ryan is a conservative and a compromiser, but not a magician. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Height Securities. The text has been corrected.

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