October 23rd, 2020


Words of caution to temper Ryan's optimism

Amber Phillips

By Amber Phillips

Published Dec. 21, 2015

WASHINGTON - After the House did its part Friday morning to avoid a government shutdown, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., took a victory lap of sorts.

The new speaker took to the floor and thanked staff and his leadership team for making the overwhelming vote -- 316 ayes, 113 nays, and a majority of both parties -- to pass a $1.1 trillion spending bill possible. (The Senate very quickly passed the spending bill, wrapped into a $622 tax break package Friday, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign this the package into law soon afterward.)

"Thanks to your hard work ... [w]e're getting the House back to being the people's House," Ryan told his colleagues in a letter after the vote.

But Ryan might want to be careful not to get ahead of himself. A closer look at Friday's vote breakdown suggests there are still major roadblocks awaiting him next year. The political dynamics within the Republican Party and Congress as a whole that made governing near impossible for Ryan's predecessor, John Boehner, are still there.

And perhaps even slightly worse.

As The Washington Post's Paul Kane pointed out in the moments after the spending bill vote, the number of Republicans who voted yes on Friday's spending bill was actually slightly less than the number of Republicans who voted yes on similar bills the past two years.

Sure, Ryan getting 150 members of his party to vote yes on Friday is worth some celebration. Just 79 Republicans voted yes on October's budget deal that laid the framework for this spending bill, so in less than two months he almost doubled his party's support for the deal he cut with Democrats.

But Molly Reynolds with the Brookings Institution did the math and noted that Boehner got about 70 percent of his party to vote yes on last year's spending bill; Ryan earned about 60 percent. Really, the bill's passage speaks more to Ryan's skills -- as well as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's talent, D-Calif. -- in loading it with enough random goodies that a majority of both their parties voted for it.

"It's always easier to get bipartisan support for legislation when it has goodies for both sides," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in an email. "Unfortunately, that is what we are seeing here."

Ryan is probably playing the expectations game. And to the extent we can extrapolate political meaning from one vote, it suggests his expectations are pretty low to begin with. As Fox News' Chad Pergram points out, Ryan's leadership team set a goal of getting 150 votes (out of 246) on big bills like this. And 150 is exactly what they got.

In other words, Ryan knows there's still a sizable number of Republicans willing to join with the 30-40 hard-line conservatives and vote against their leader's wishes. And he has yet to find a solution (that we know of) to convince them to change their ways. Which means he has to cut deals with Democrats that will not make these members happy. It's a vicious cycle.

Ryan knew he was never going to get all of his party to vote for this bill. In particular, the hard-line group known as the Freedom Caucus were very unlikely to vote for an expensive, massive spending deal -- especially one that contained none of their major demands (like cutting off funds for Planned Parenthood or to stop Syrian refugee resettlement). And next year, this group could reasonably be expected to oppose any establishment priority, since back home they so rarely face consequences (and in some cases are even rewarded) for disrupting Washington.

So instead, Ryan and his leadership team focused their efforts on about 75 more moderate lawmakers who regularly vote against must-pass compromise legislation like this deal but secretly hope it will pass anyway. Around Capitol Hill, they're called the "vote no, hope yes" caucus, and Ryan thinks convincing them to change their ways is his best chance for a functioning Congress next year. As Politico reported, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., sent a letter to this group after Thanksgiving urging them to actually vote the way they hope -- yes.

It's a tough sell, though. As House districts (and communities) grow more polarized, many lawmakers in this group might be concerned about a primary challenger back home if they don't vote with the hard-line members of their party. Some of them may feel they have no choice but to vote no and hope yes to guarantee they keep their jobs. (Though we would note that very few members actually lose primaries -- almost always in the single digits.)

The math on Friday's vote suggests that's still the case.

Finally, here's one more word of caution to temper Ryan's optimism: These spending bill votes have never really been the big hurdle for party leaders. Boehner -- and now Ryan -- can claim they were able to get a majority of their party to vote for it each time.

The real measure of congressional dysfunction is the fact that we have to go through this process at all, Reynolds said. Every lawmaker who voted yes or no on Friday can agree that the right way for Congress to operate is to spend the year passing individual pieces of spending legislation for each agency instead of tossing it altogether into one 1,500-page bill at the last minute.

Both Ryan and his counterpart in the Senate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have promised to get back to doing that next year. (They call it "regular order.") Ryan might have some reason to think that's possible, but his first major test as speaker suggest he's still got a long way to go to get the rest of his party on-board with that plan.


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