House Republicans, it seems, abhor a vacuum. No sooner had Paul Ryan announced his retirement as speaker of the House of Representatives than plans for a seamless succession sprung into place. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, was immediately identified as the rightful heir; the man presumed to be his most credible rival, whip Steve Scalise, announced with equal promptness that he would offer no contesting claim if McCarthy made one first. A few hours later, Ryan officially endorsed McCarthy, and Scalise followed suit. Barring any weirdness, McCarthy will succeed Ryan so long as Republicans maintain control of the House.
There is no real reason for all this to be sorted out so quickly. Ryan says he will not step aside until the new Congress is elected and sworn in, which won’t be until January of 2019. The speaker will be elected by and from the assembled House at that time, and there’s no obligation for the parties to put forth a single, “official” candidate — the race, theoretically, is open to anyone willing to contest it.
These days, of course, nothing works that way. Ryan needs an immediate heir apparent because 21st-century American midterm elections have evolved in an ever more parliamentary direction, in which voters are asked to consider their ballot as a vote for a speaker of the House functioning as a de facto American prime minister — the leader of the national legislature, and setter of its agenda.
As was the case in the 2014 midterms, and the ones in 2010 before them, this November Republicans will run explicitly against Nancy Pelosi. Her agenda for the country will be described in grim detail, and a vote for any Democratic candidate will be framed as a vote to restore her to the speakership from which she did so much damage between 2007 and 2011. The Democrats, in turn, will spend the next few months introducing Americans to this McCarthy character, portraying him as a right-wing ogre poised to unleash horrors “even worse” than those initiated by Paul Ryan. The identities and agendas of the 435 men and women actually on the ballot will be generalized into brainless McCarthyists or Pelosi-ites.
America does not use the parliamentary system; the Constitution makes that clear. Executive power is vested exclusively in the president, who exists independently of the legislature. While the presidency is structured as a hierarchical office, the Constitution says nothing about Congress being similarly top-down. The only mention of House leadership is a passing mention that the chamber “shall choose their Speaker and other Officers”; on every other occasion the body is described as a collective: “the Congress shall . . .”
Yet over time, expectations of the speaker have evolved. During the Founders’ time the speaker was a bland presiding chairman; today, he or she is a hyper-partisan pseudo-premier holding authority over not only his party’s caucus and committees, but also the policy goals and priorities of Congress more generally. Today, would-be speakers essentially function like British party leaders, articulating a clear set of legislative priorities for the nation and pursuing them with vigor once their party wins a majority.
While modern speakers have certainly established substantial control over many procedural operations of the House, including the legislative calendar and committee appointments, notions of an all-powerful speaker remain at odds with reality. As the House of Representatives becomes more ideological and broadly less corrupt, and traditional arm-twisting incentives such as earmarks disappear, speakers find fewer tools on hand to muscle through their agendas. Modern speakers routinely lose votes, and as Ryan (and John Boehner before him) ably proved, they are easily undermined by intransigent factions within their conference.
This gap between expectation and reality has sired some of the unhelpful political apathy of our time. Because we’ve inflated the relevance of the speaker, we demand unrealistic accountability from him, holding him personally responsible for failures of Congress that are often more institutional, cultural, or logistical in nature. The imperial speaker serves as figurehead of the theory that “Congress” is a clean, unified entity that can be judged easily like a president, as opposed to merely the foggy majoritarian decisions of hundreds of free-voting legislators.
A better path would be to seize this unique set of circumstances as an opportunity to return the speakership to its humbler roots.
Independent of what he did or didn’t achieve in office, Paul Ryan’s rise and fall was uniquely unhelpful in this regard. Given his preexisting brand as a uniquely passionate, wonkish, principled member of Congress — who had previously sought executive office himself — Ryan’s heroic ascent in 2015 raised expectations he would be a uniquely consequential leader of the legislature, and helped rationalize his efforts to consolidate power even when his predecessor had been despised for precisely that. (Representative Mark Meadows’s ill-fated non-confidence motion in Speaker Boehner, itself a bizarre byproduct of our time, reads like the indictment of George III.)
That Ryan was not more successful can be blamed on a number of factors, some of which, such as his inability to grasp the changing preferences and priorities of his party’s base, can be placed firmly on his shoulders, while others, such as the Senate’s unwillingness to approve the House Obamacare repeal, obviously cannot. Yet one can’t avoid feeling the main outcome of these failings will be simply to pile heightened expectations on Kevin McCarthy or Nancy Pelosi to be better prime ministers, followed by a fresh cycle of despair when they too fail to deliver the sweeping agenda they had no business promising.
A better path would be to seize this unique set of circumstances — a vacant speakership on the Republican side, and a broadly unpopular would-be speaker on the Democrats’ — as an opportunity to return the speakership to its humbler roots, with a less ambitious and bossy office-holder. Doing so would end the trend of treating midterms as a national referendum on who should occupy an overinflated pseudo-executive office, and back towards simply picking the best local legislator to vote in your community’s interest. A harder task for voters perhaps, but ultimately the more constitutional one.