BY ALMOST any measure, it was a very good week for Paul Davis Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican congressman just elected Speaker of the House. Two B.F. Deals have come to pass in the last eight days, events that could be a promising sign of things to come for anyone hoping for a Congress committed to getting things done on the eve of an election year (when Congress probably won’t get things done).
The speaker got an early break. On Oct. 27, a day before the confirming vote, Ryan was set to start his new position with a kind of House-warming gift: the House’s approval of a budget deal that staves off a federal government shutdown and doesn’t end until after next year’s election. The 16-month deal that the Senate approved on Oct. 30 (64-35) sunsets in March 2017. President Obama signed it on Monday.
With that divisive, potentially ruinous disaster now off the table until well after the election, Ryan got himself a short-term get-out-of-gridlock card that lets him focus on the other big job that his new congressional role demands: making things happen in the House in a way his predecessor, John Boehner of Ohio, could not.
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The Senate passed its own version of the measure, and a conference committee will try to resolve any remaining differences before the current highway funding runs out on Nov. 20, Bloomberg reported Thursday. If, as expected, the details get ironed out, it would lead to the first multi-year transportation law from Congress since 2012.
“It cuts waste, it prioritizes good infrastructure, it will help create good-paying jobs. And it is the result of a more open process,” Ryan said at a post-vote news conference, as reported by Bloomberg. “It’s a good start. It’s a glimpse of how we should be doing the people’s business.”
The new Speaker of the House of Representatives has moved into new responsibilities as big as the new office he’s entitled to (if he ever moves out of his digs in the Longworth House Office Building). He still faces an unruly Republican caucus, a White House spoiling for big things in its last 14 months, and a need for real leadership in this transitional period. But Ryan — already making history as the youngest house speaker in about 150 years — begins his tenure well, with two solid legislative victories achieved swiftly without rancor, threats or a drop of blood on the floor.
Nice. Let’s see how long this lasts.
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Because it won’t be enough for Ryan to sit on his hands for a year and change. The next 14 months won’t just be the period of twilight of the Obama White House; it’s also a time when Ryan himself will be tested, pushed and provoked as speaker, not least if all by members of his own party ... some of whom thought, and still think, he was the wrong choice.
Ryan has his blind spots, none as glaring or as unnecessary as his stand on immigration reform. That much was obvious last weekend on the Sunday-morning talk shows, when the new speaker said he would not be talking to the president about immigration reform. Ryan’s apparent reasoning is that the matter needs revisiting without the white-hot media glare of numerous presidential campaigns. But at the very least, it’s optically problematic. It looks like Ryan’s not just kicking that can down the proverbial road but (legislatively speaking) kicking that can off the road altogether.
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“And the reason is simple: The American people can’t trust him to uphold the law. ...
“Instead of working to build trust, he has destroyed it. Last November, after his party lost control of the Senate, the president decided to circumvent the legislative process by unilaterally granting legal status to 5 million people. He has already demonstrated he is not serious about enforcing the law. Passing comprehensive reform during his presidency would merely render it meaningless.”
Pew Research Center: Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Growth and Change Through 2065
But that rationale is specious. Faced with a Congress that more or less panoramically refused to move the ball on many major reformative pieces of legislation for years, the Obama White House has since made good use of recess appointments, executive orders and the inattention of his various political opponents. These were the only avenues left open to him to advance the important components of his agenda — one of them being immigration reform.
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THERE’S A YEAR between now and the presidential election. For millions of Latino Americans, immigration reform is important right now. It should be important for Republicans too. (It is for Rep. Raul Labrador.)
Waiting until after January 2017 to move meaningfully on the issue is to throw away an opportunity to make serious inroads into the Latino vote before the election — an election that, with an estimated 66,000 Latino Americans turning old enough to vote every month, may well turn on that same Latino voting bloc historically alienated by the Republicans at every opportunity.
Adopting a gradualist approach to immigration reform, Ryan almost certainly ushers this pivotal demographic into the Democratic fold, and maybe for good. There’s nothing “meaningless” about that.
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Ryan can break with his predecessor in other ways. His place in the line of presidential succession is important in ways that go beyond his more quotidian role in the House: whip counts or votes or procedural matters. Being in the line of presidential succession presupposes a willingness to pursue at least the optics of statesmanship.
If you’re in line to be president, and even if you’re not, you shouldn’t skip encounters with world leaders. Boehner did that between November 2009 and May 2010, when he rebuffed invitations to receptions for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. And later, with no reason offered, he failed to show in January 2011 at a White House state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao. It would have been Boehner’s first such formal dinner as House speaker.
Never mind the snub of a president he apparently didn’t like or respect much; with the no-shows at the receptions, Boehner lost an opportunity to widen the strike zone on being a national leader. And by missing a state dinner with the leader of only the second largest economy on the planet, he ducked out on one of the more inescapable perceptual responsibilities of the job of Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Ryan needs to rise above any such temptations. He is second in line to the presidency for a reason.
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THE EARLY report card is good for the new speaker. He’s made some of the right gestures, the ones that suggest the possibility of bipartisan accomplishment and a willingness of lawmakers to reach across the aisle (holding their noses if necessary) in order to get something done. And he’s the beneficiary of two potentially monumental hurdles eliminated before the ink was dry on his new stationery.
But we can count on it: Like Boehner before him, Ryan will have chances to advance the GOP’s objectives at the expense of the nation’s. Sooner or later, facing the warring factions in the House he now presides over, he’ll be forced to make hard choices — choices that will offer a clear contrast between how Congress “should be doing the people’s business” and how they’ve done that business, or failed to, in the past.
Ryan’s actions could make the difference between his speakership being transitional and being consequential. For his party, it’s the difference between standing athwart the future — sighing and wistfully gazing in the rear-view mirror — and looking forward, facing the unyielding, enlivening, emerging demographic realities that neither he nor his party nor our nation can evade.
Image credits: Ryan: Bloomberg. U.S. foreign-born forecast chart: © 2015 Pew Research Center.