What Are the Duties of the Speaker of the House of Representatives? (with Paul Ryan)
Manage episode 348997457 series 2833439
The topic of this episode is, “What are the Duties of the Speaker of the House of Representatives?”
My guest is Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan was the 54th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In office from October 2015 to January 2019, he was the youngest Speaker in nearly 150 years.
Prior to becoming Speaker of the House, Paul served as the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He also served as Chairman of the House Budget Committee from 2011-2015. In 2012, he was selected to serve as Governor Mitt Romney’s Vice-Presidential nominee. Paul was first elected to Congress at age 28 and represented Wisconsin’s First District for two decades.
Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It's a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be, and that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I'm your host, Kevin Kosar, and I'm a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank in Washington DC.
Speaker Ryan, welcome to the podcast.
Kevin, good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
Article 1 of the US Constitution states, "The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other officers." How does the House pick a Speaker these days?
The way it works is the majority party in their conference—we call the Republican body the Conference, the Democrats call theirs the Caucus—will have a vote as to whom they nominate for Speaker. That's a plurality vote—the person who gets the most votes wins. Kevin McCarthy won that, which means he is to be presented to the full House on January 3rd when a new session is sworn in and he has to get—or she, in Nancy [Pelosi]'s case—has to get 218 votes. The Democratic Caucus will also vote on who they nominate to be the Speaker. If [Pelosi] stays, they'll probably nominate her. If not, I don't know, Hakeem Jeffries or somebody like that.
A candidate must win a majority vote—218 votes—on the House floor when the new session is sworn in. Then that person is sworn in by the Dean of the House—the longest serving member—and that Speaker becomes the newly-installed Speaker for that new session of Congress. Then that person swears in all of Congress. That's how it gets started.
The Constitution says the House shall have a Speaker, but it doesn’t provide a full job description. In the earliest days of the Republic, the Speaker’s duty was to preside over the chamber—to be the guy who runs the meeting. Times sure have changed. What are the duties and responsibilities of the Speaker today?
Yeah, they're endless and infinite in some ways. It is not like it was in the old days. It's a bigger Congress—there are more states than they envisioned and the government does so many more things than it used to do in the first Congresses.
You're basically the chief executive officer of the legislative branch. You oversee the entire legislative branch, so technically you have something like 12,500 employees. In a way, you’re like the mayor of the legislative branch, overseeing the legislative council, the law enforcement agency, the power plant, the janitors, etc. And you have deputies that run all of that—whom you appoint—such as the Architect of the Capital, the Sergeant of Arms. So, there's an administrative side of being Speaker of the House that most people aren't familiar with.
But you're also the head of the legislative branch. As far as the work of legislating in the House itself, you basically control the flow of legislation. You oversee your party's selection of memberships of committees and chairmanships of committees, and through your leadership team, you determine who does where, when, and how, more or less. That is, you determine what bills get scheduled to the floor. You work with the committee chairmen to make sure that they get their bills to the floor. You set the floor schedule and through the rules committee—which is controlled by the Speaker—you determine the way in which debate occurs: Are there amendments to be made, and in what order? What kind of a rule? Is it an open rule, where any amendment can be made in order, or is it a structured rule, where only certain kinds of amendments can be made in order? And by controlling the debate, you can control the outcome of that debate by virtue of the changes you allow or do not allow to happen to the legislation.
It's basically like an air traffic controller where you're doing the ground control, which is the committees—what are they doing and when are they doing that. And you're also doing air traffic control—what bills go to the floor, what bills get passed, etc.
You also have to negotiate with the Senate when they have legislation. In that case, you appoint the negotiators in conference committees to negotiate the reconciliation of legislation with the Senate, but sometimes that bubbles up to you and you become the primary negotiator with the Senate. Then you work on getting the White House lined up to pass something. So you operate negotiations—House to Senate, Congress to the presidency—and how the House curates and builds its legislation. That's the legislative side of it.
In the modern era, you’re a political person as well, because you're the head of your party for your body—for the House Republicans in my case or House Democrats in Pelosi's case—and you're probably also the top fundraiser for the party. So when you're not in the Capital legislating and managing the legislative process or the legislative branch, you're out fundraising for your party to make sure that members have the resources that run their campaigns. So it's three things: a political job, a managerial ministerial job, and then it's a legislative job.
And I guess implicit in what you are describing is that, presumably as a Speaker, you have to spend a lot of your time bargaining amongst the factions within the party because there's always intra-party disagreement.
Every day. I like to have a known schedule. I like to have a method for my week, so we would start the beginning of the week with a conference with all of our members.
Every morning would include a meeting with my leadership team to see what the day's going to look like, what the week looks like, and what the long term looks like. On Wednesdays, I would have lunch with the various heads of the various factions in the House Republican conference. So I stayed very close with the leaders of all the various factions—the Tuesday Group, the Study Committee, the Freedom Caucus, and people in between. And I'd rotate various people in so that I had constant lines of communication with the various factions in our conference and in between those as well because there's a big diaspora of different types of views and temperaments within just the House Republican Conference. So the key for me was constant communication.
Early on, we would craft a jointly assembled agenda where we all collaborated and worked on creating an agenda that we believed in, which we usually assembled in our retreats or different processes. Then we would go effectuate and execute our agenda, and while we were effectuating our agenda, maintained constant communication to make sure everyone was playing the role and getting constant feedback and input from people. And it's a consensus-driven process that you had to dry. It is not a dictatorial role. People think the Speaker just dictates. Not at all. You have to forge and bring consensus to get people to unify on a common cause so that you can pass legislation because not everything's going to be bipartisan. Some of it's going to be partisan—e.g., tax reform. So that's the day-to-day thing you do, and you have to manage all of these coalitions.
Before television became common in the United States, Speakers of the House were relatively unknown to 99% of America. That too has changed. Is communicating with the public, to be the voice of the majority of the House, also consume a lot of time?
Yeah. You do two press conferences each week as Speaker of the House, one at the beginning and end of the week. So it's just open for the press to shoot at you and ask you questions. But then you have a lot of strategic communication in between, which is pretty much TV, radio, and print—but mostly a lot of TV—interviews. I think that’s part of the reason I got the job of Speaker—I actually didn't look for the job, it found me.
I don't know if you know the story well, but John Boehner left because the Freedom Caucus was going to invoke this motion to vacate, and he left to spare the members of that vote. The next guy in line—who is now the next guy in line, Kevin McCarthy—at that time didn't have the votes to get it. So the consensus came to me to do it. I was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee at the time.
I think one of the reasons I became the consensus candidate that all the factions in Congress agreed to me was partly because I was a policy guy and a policy maker, and they agreed with the policies that I had been pushing through the budget and ways means committees. But also because I had already had a stint at the national political level running for vice president with Mitt Romney, I'd already gone through the gauntlet. I already got shot at a thousand times by the national media. I already knew how to handle national media and had the thick skin for national media exposure.
That was considered a key part of the job and is today a key part of the job. You've got to be able to handle national media exposure and operate in that environment. That was not the old days. That is definitely how you do it today, though. I don't think Tip O'Neill was necessarily the most charismatic TV guy. So speakers like that—and that was fairly recent history—didn't do communications. Today, the Speaker is also very much of a communications job.
That's an awful lot of responsibilities, which amounts to an extremely heavy load. Who helps the Speaker get all those things done?
Yeah, your staff—and you have a pretty sizable staff. My life has always been planned in 15-minute increments. As Speaker, you basically try to balance your time, and your chief of staff helps you design your schedule. And then you have a whole bunch of people on your staff who help you organize your times—make sure that the meetings you have are very productive and try and curate resolutions to whatever problem you're trying to solve before the meeting happens. So when you get a meeting, you can more or less finish the job of solving a problem, getting to a decision, executing something, some sort of a mission, or something like that. So you have to have a lot of staff.
But different Speakers have different leadership styles. For instance, [Pelosi] really liked consolidating power in the Speaker's office. I actually recoiled against that. Frankly, the modern Speaker has too much power. My goal was to try to decentralize power as best and as much as I could. I felt that way because I was a committee chairman who believed that I and my fellow committee members should be writing the policy on the issues in our jurisdiction. After all, we were spending all of our time in that policy area, not somebody who maybe thinks a half hour a week on this issue up in leadership. My goal was always to push power, responsibility, and communications out to the committees where the specialists actually did the job.
That's the opposite of the way the Pelosi Congress runs, and I have every belief that Kevin McCarthy will decentralize power and re-empower the committees. But having said that, all of that as Speaker—because you command so much attention—you have to also communicate what those committees are producing. You have to communicate your party's vision and views on where they're going and the various policy nuances that are in between.
But the key to me in governing the place successfully—and as the Founders intended—is to decentralize power and equip the committees with the power and agency to formulate the policy in their areas of jurisdiction, because they're the experts. They're the ones who spend day in and day out combing through CRS (Congressional Research Service) reports, GAO (Government Accountability Office) reports, IG (Inspector General) audits, and all of the rest. They're the ones that really should be setting the policy, and that to me is the way Congress ought to be run.
Yes, the process over the last 50 years where so much power has been traded up to the Speaker, arguably it's reached its apex, and it has some benefits. They craft bills behind closed doors and put them in front of folks and they vote it up or down. But at the same time, everybody seems to be miserable because they realize that as a legislator, they've traded away the essence of their job.
Yeah, some people don't want to take responsibility for the choices you've made. But in a lot of it, I think it's just the consolidation of power that has accrued to the Speakership. I don't like that frankly. I didn't like it then. I don't like it now. I think a lot of it comes from the way the budget process has been basically broken. In order to address this, one of the things I got an agreement on within one of our omnibus appropriation bills was a bicameral committee on budget process reform. I put Steve Womack in charge of it for the House. So we had bipartisan members of the House and Senate to get us to a new budget process where we would decentralize power and have the budget committee and the appropriation committees actually write their bills, negotiate their bills, and pass separate bills.
Now, that Womack committee produced a great report on annual budgeting and different way of doing the budget only to be basically killed by the Democrats. I think [Schumer] and [Pelosi]—no offense to them, but they—like consolidating power. They like four corners deals. Four corner deals are where the Speaker and the Minority Leader of the House, and the Majority Leader and the Minority Leaders of the Senate—the four of them and their staff basically write a bill. I don't even think I have room on this screen to show the size of the bill—three feet thick—that funds all of the discretionary spending, well over a trillion dollars annually. And that is put together more or less by the Appropriations Committee, but molded and negotiated by those four people and their staffs. It is not how government should work. It gives far too much power to the Speakership.
I made lots of decisions. Frankly, I think I'm a smart guy. I've been around and I try to use good ethics and principles, but I made so many decisions—that I frankly shouldn't have been making—in the design of these bills and in negotiating these things. The committees with jurisdiction should be having the responsibility to make those decisions. So that's one of the unfinished businesses that I left—I tried to get it done with this bicameral committee, but it's going to have to be bipartisan.
Unfortunately, I think Democrats—whether it's because they're collectivists by nature or because they like consolidating power—don't want to participate in opening up Congress, decentralizing its power, and empowering rank-and-file members in the committee process to do its job. I think if you do, you're going to get a better product—it's going to be a more clear, accountable, and transparent government. But that is not what we have today, and it clearly takes both parties in both houses to agree on the solution on how to fix that.
You spent time as a representative, you spent time chairing a committee. You then spent time as Speaker, and now you've had some time away from the chamber. Drawing on that experience, drawing on your wisdom, if you had one piece of advice for an incoming Speaker, what would it be?
Decentralize the power. Open the place up. You won’t control or predict every outcome, but that's okay. That's the sloppiness of a republic and the way it should be. So just decentralize the power and restore the institution. The institution has been attrited away to the executive branch. Part of that's the Progressive agenda. Part of that's just power consolidation. But rebuild the institution of the legislative branch, and the best way to do that is to empower the members and decentralize its power within the institution. Get the power of the legislative branch back.
All right. Speaker Paul Ryan, thank you for helping us better understand the responsibilities of the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Good to be with you, Kevin. Thanks for having me.
Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others, and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging @AEI. Once again, thank you for listening, and have a great day.