The House needs a Speaker, but not an Emperor

In 50 BC, Julius Caesar was ordered by his old friend Pompey to disband his armies at the end of his governorship and return to Rome. Sensing that things weren’t going to play out very well, Caesar marched the 13th Legion across the Rubicon and arranged for a rather different entry to the city. Pompey fled, leading to a two year running battle which eventually resulted in his returning to Rome minus the bits of his anatomy below the neck. The Senate held an election in 48 BC to declare Caesar dictator, but it wasn’t the most open and competitive of races since many of the remaining senators seemed to take some sort of a lesson from Pompey’s experience. Having set him up at the top of the food chain, the Senators found little recourse in selecting new leadership other than some unpleasantness which we still refer to as the Ides of March.

Not that I’m drawing a direct comparison between the two events, but last night Taylor opened up the discussion of the news that Paul Ryan was grudgingly going to allow himself to be elevated to the position of Speaker of the House, second in line to ascend to the presidency in the current order of succession. But in agreeing to this elevation he set forth some rather unusual conditions. (Bloomberg News)

Ryan said he told fellow Republicans that he wants them to unify behind him, end leadership crises and let him continue spending time with his family. Ryan said he didn’t want to spend weekends away from his wife and children for the extensive travel and fundraising that have been a major part of the House speaker’s job.

“If you can agree to these requests and if I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve,” Ryan, 45, of Wisconsin said, recounting what he said during the meeting. “This is not a job I’ve ever wanted,” he told reporters, but added that he “came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment.”

Ryan said he wants an answer from fellow Republicans by the end of the week. “It’s in their hands,” he said.

He had one other requirement which caught the attention of many observers immediately.

Ryan wants changes in a procedure for removing the House speaker, known as a motion to vacate the chair, his spokesman, Brendan Buck, said in an e-mailed statement. Freedom Caucus members’ threat to try to remove Boehner last month led to the speaker’s announcement that he will give up the job.

“No matter who is speaker, they cannot be successful with this weapon pointed at them all the time,” Buck said.

Am I the only one who finds much of this troubling even in the midst of what can rightly be described as a leadership crisis? Right off the bat this conveys a sense of a coronation more than an election. The position of Speaker is a critical one and it was designed to be determined by a (hopefully broad) consensus of the members, or at least the members of the majority. What Paul Ryan is asking in exchange for rescuing the party from itself is essentially the cancellation of any sort of competitive election or airing of competing ideas. We’re being offered the opportunity to have everyone else clear the field and agree in advance to the result before he will even consider “running” for the position. This is unsettling if only in light of the lessons of history.

The fact that Ryan is letting everyone know up front that he doesn’t work weekends and will be spending time with his family raises a different set of questions. The job of Speaker does, in fact, require a lot of travel and off hours work wrangling votes and building consensus. Paul Ryan’s dedication to his family and his determination to spend quality time with them speaks well of his values and ties in with the solid reputation he holds representing his district. But at the same time, perhaps someone with that many personal commitments simply doesn’t have the time to do the job he is being drafted for. Returning again to the order of succession, we would never consider a candidate for President who insisted on weekends off because Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tend to work Saturdays and Sundays.

Last (but most assuredly not least) is the idea that the House should abandon the rules for vacating the chair. It’s troubling enough that this is going to turn out to not actually be an election under the terms being discussed, but the only path for removal of the office holder if the members are unhappy with his performance is to be struck down? Even if you’re the President you can, in theory, be impeached.

To be clear, I admire Paul Ryan quite a bit. He’s one of the smarter people on the Hill and you need some serious policy wonks to do the unpleasant work of figuring out things like balancing the budget and restructuring our imploding entitlement programs. Complaints about his being insufficiently conservative have their place in the public discourse because of a few positions he’s taken (on immigration reform, among others) but they are largely overstated in my opinion. He’s a true fiscal conservative at a minimum and I believe he comes to his office with an earnest desire to serve his district and the nation. I also believe he would approach the job of Speaker with the same sincere intentions and for all I know he may wind up being a successful and respected leader if that happens.

But with all that said, we hold elections for a reason, and that includes the election of a Speaker. We also keep mechanisms in place to remove elected officials should they fail to adequately serve the needs of those who lift them to power. The House leadership is in a moment of crisis and I don’t deny that. A strong, conservative Speaker is needed to move the party’s agenda forward after John Boehner’s departure. But this seems a a disturbing path to take in digging ourselves out of the hole we currently reside in. It would, in my opinion, be a mistake to rush rashly into the arms of a savior if the price is disastrously high. I’m not opposing Paul Ryan as the next Speaker of the House, but I would much prefer to see the next Speaker elected in regular order, have them ready to commit to the full demands of the office and be sworn in knowing that they are still answerable to the members. If Paul Ryan meets all those requirements to the satisfaction of his peers then we should be in great shape. If not, I would remind everyone of the ultima ratio required to remove Caesar, though only metaphorically in the modern era.