Politics & Policy

Ryan Strikes Optimistic Tone in First Speech as Speaker

Backed by the vast majority of House Republicans, newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan vowed to “wipe the slate clean” today, outlining a vision for ending the bitter battles between leadership and rank-and-file that hampered John Boehner’s final days in office.

As Ryan took office, he gave voice to the frustration that has roiled the Republican presidential primary season and contributed to the ouster of his predecessor. “America does not feel strong anymore because the working people of America do not feel strong anymore,” the Wisconsin Republican said in a speech to the full House after his election. “They do not sit in this House. They do not have fancy titles. But they are the people who make this country work and this House should work for them. . . . They look at Washington and all they see is chaos; what a relief to them it would be if we finally got our act together.”

There was no chaos on the House floor Thursday, as the youngest speaker in 150 years received 236 votes to make official what had become a foregone conclusion. Nine Republicans voted for Representative Daniel Webster (R., Fla.), who participated in a coup attempt against Boehner in January but asked his supporters not to submit his name for a formal nomination Thursday, after he lost the closed-door GOP conference vote on Wednesday.

With his position assured, Ryan addressed the House, striking a note of optimism after the frenzied uncertainty of the last few weeks.

“We solve problems here,” he said. “Yes we create a lot of them, too. But at bottom, we vindicate a way of life: We show by our work that free people can govern themselves.”

#share#But that mission can only be fulfilled, Ryan said, through “regular order” — the reversal of Boehner’s top-down legislative style that conservative backbenchers have long demanded. Instead of framing the idea as a concession, though, Ryan emphasized the need for lawmakers to work harder and have more serious debates. “We do not echo the people; we represent the people,” he said. “We are supposed to study up and do the work that they cannot do. So when we do not follow regular order, when we rush to pass bills that a lot of us don’t understand, we are not doing our job.”

The observation was an apparent nod to the James Madison-penned Federalist No. 10, which says that the government of a republic should “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens.”

#related#Ryan fleshed out that sentiment by promising to devolve power back to the House’s committees, a move that could mollify conservative backbenchers who were frustrated with Boehner. “If you know the issue, you should write the bill,” he said. “Let’s open up the process, let people participate. And they might change their mind. A neglected minority will gum up the works; a respected minority will work in good faith.”

It was a forward-looking speech from a lawmaker who has never wanted to be speaker, in part because of the anger that some conservative voters have for Republican leaders, whom they generally regard as too willing to collaborate with Democrats. Ryan is well aware of the potential for that distrust to undermine him, and he seemed careful to avoid feeding it on Thursday. When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) moved to hug the new speaker after presenting him with the gavel, Ryan opted for a cordial handshake, instead — thereby avoiding a politically problematic photo-op.

Even in the midst of celebration, Ryan is treading carefully.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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