By Jack Brownfield
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced this Wednesday that he will not run for reelection in November, sparking a competition among Republicans for the House leadership and, depending on how the midterm elections play out, the role of Speaker. Ryan said he believes that he has “done [his] part…to set us on a better course” during his roughly three years leading the House of Representatives. Colleagues and friends believe a major factor in Ryan’s decision was the tax reform bill passed last year, which had long been one of the fiscal conservative’s priorities. Ryan also mentioned that he wanted to spend more time with his family, a common line for politicians, but one that has special significance for him. Ryan’s own father passed away when he was a teenager, which aides believe has made him particularly concerned with being present for his children.
While Ryan is retiring, his influence will remain. Matthew Yglesias of Vox explains how President Trump has largely embraced Ryan’s views on economic and healthcare policy. “The Trump administration is quite loyally plugging away at Ryan-esque goals that the president never articulated as a candidate.” That is, although Trump’s campaign seemed open to ideas like increasing entitlement spending (an issue important to his base), his administration is actually enacted the kind of strong fiscal conservatism that Ryan has championed. Trump has, for example, moved to increase work requirements for welfare recipients, and his original proposal for an Obamacare replacement included block-granting Medicaid, another of Ryan’s favorite policy ideas. So even though Paul Ryan will no longer be in the House, his legacy of strong conservative thinking on budgeting and spending will likely remain.
Several candidates have emerged to replace Ryan as the Republican leader in the House of Representatives. Ryan’s two top deputies, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), are seen as his most likely successors. Both men have downplayed the competition, with Scalise even going as far as claiming he would not challenge McCarthy. Still, that has not stopped their fellow House Republicans from sizing the two candidates up to see who they should support. McCarthy, as Ryan’s second-in-command, has the easiest path, but some believe that his rocky relationship with the far-right House Freedom Caucus could damage his chances. It was this same group that doomed his bid for the Speakership in 2015 and paved the way for Ryan’s own election. But others have pointed to McCarthy’s strong relationship with President Trump as evidence that he has become more politically viable as a leader. “It’s McCarthy’s to lose,” one GOP lawmaker opined. Finally, McCarthy was endorsed by Ryan this Friday, saying that he anticipates a “seamless transition” for his favored candidate.
Scalise is viewed more positively by the 40-member Freedom Caucus which, while too small to ensure its own candidate is chosen, is large enough to block anyone they dislike. Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), a Freedom Caucus member, said that his group might support Scalise both because he is seen as more conservative than McCarthy and because he nearly lost his life when a gunman opened fire at a Congressional baseball practice last year. Scalise has also raised a record amount of money as Majority Whip, which has also endeared him to his colleagues.
Looming over the Republicans’ considerations are the midterm elections and the possibility that the Democrats under Nancy Pelosi will retake the House. While Ryan has said that it played no role in his decision, it will determine what policy can actually be enacted for the next two years. No matter who wins the GOP’s leadership election, if they lose control of the chamber they will be relegated to a lesser position. Still, it is a significant prize, not only for the individuals involved but for their ideological factions within the Republican Party.
Jack is a sophomore in the College studying English and Government and writes about domestic social and cultural issues.