Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Don’t stand too close to the Speaker
On your right
Out on the hustings, it seems that every Republican politician with any name recognition is running for president. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, every Republican with a first name is running away from the possibility of being nominated Speaker of the House. It’s a curious contrast.
Historically, the position of Speaker wields enormous power. Third in line of succession for the presidency, it has seen such notables as Joseph Cannon, Sam Rayburn and powerful reprobates like Thomas “Tip” O’Neil. Each of these and many others put the stamp of their party on the policies of the national government of their day. Presidents paid attention when they spoke, and consultations with the executive branch were characterized by real give-and-take among people who recognized the ability of the Speaker to abet, thwart or bury policies of the national government.
Why would any ambitious politician turn an opportunity like this down? The answer is straightforward and terrible.
Over the past half-century, power has drifted from the Congress to the executive branch — a process which has accelerated in the Age of Obama. Because this branch is seen as the source of all public benefits, it is increasingly applauded for its willingness to flout custom and U.S. Constitution — witness the popular media’s embrace of the president’s questionable “pen and phone” strategy.
There is common expectation of direct personal benefit as a result of these flirtations with Banana-Republic governance, so there is reticence to oppose such measures save among politicians who continue to serve the national interest rather than themselves and who are deaf to the resulting opprobrium.
There are the actions of one’s colleagues in the House itself. At present, there are more than 40 members of the “Freedom Forum,” a group with disparate agendas but a uniting distaste for an autocratic executive branch and the “go-along-to-get-along” attitude of the Congressional majority leadership in both House and Senate. To these Representatives and Senators, they who value their own power and position over the national interest — and who refuse to fight for the latter — are detritus to be swept out of the way. Their attitude and unity was one of the reasons behind the resignation of Speaker Boehner and the more recent announcement that his protegé Kevin McCarthy would bow out of the race for the position.
Now, the House majority faces a conundrum. The Republican old guard wants desperately to avoid the election of a member this caucus supports — Representative Jason Chaffetz or Florida’s Daniel Webster. They have seen Congress’ power eroded by an aggressive president untroubled by constitutional niceties and have concluded that what matters most to them is their personal perquisites, which they may lose in a contested election. They lack the conviction of their principles or even the skill to make their case to an inert public, so they seek a prohibitive candidate to dissuade competition and short-circuit discussion of substantive issues — a debate they fear losing.
Their current desideratum is former Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, a man who seems not to want the job but may be persuaded into it. Congressman Ryan is not only wary of stepping into factional no-man’s-land as various groups in the GOP continue to war with each other for “the soul of the party,” but he is also a family man who is dubious about a new job, which will demand even more of his time. He is right on both counts, but he is under increasing pressure to assume, as Galahad did, the Siege Perilous. Perhaps by the time this appears, he will have made his decision.
Misgivings aside, the present offers opportunity as well as challenge to one bold enough to grasp it. One approach might be for the congressman to succumb to pressure to accept the job but to quietly make it clear there will be a price: replacement of the current leadership of Senate Republicans by a team readier and more willing to confront their Democrat colleagues and the White House. They would hopefully return us to the clear practice of forcing filibusters-in-fact, instead of the present “filibuster-by-announcement.” This would make it obvious that it is the Democrat minority in the Senate who threatens the government periodically with shutdowns while running interference for the president on popular but inconvenient legislation.
Such a change would be salubrious for Washington; the clubby formalism and concentration on preservation of personal perquisites at the expense of campaign promises could be swept away, or at least seriously dented; the hand of the Congress could be greatly strengthened in its conflicts with the executive, who might be reticent to take additional extra-constitutional forays in future. And the differences between the major parties would become clear to all Americans not in words, but in deeds.
A healthy outcome, but only one among many. Stay tuned.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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