Paul Ryan’s Haunted House

tags: Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, House Speaker

Josh Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

If all goes according to plan, on Thursday House Speaker John Boehner will hand over the big gavel to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. It’s little wonder that Ryan was loath to accept the job. Who’d want to rule a party racked by internecine warfare—a party that deposed its own leader without an apparent game plan to avoid a government shutdown and default? In no small way, the House has become ungovernable, and the speakership, as one columnist recently observed, a “dead end.” 

Ryan can at least take comfort in history. Simply put, we’ve been here before.

By the standards of its day, the 50th Congress, which sat between March 1887 and March 1889, was the most “feeble” in the history of the American republic. These problems were particularly acute in the House. Stymied by deep partisan and sectional fissures and constrained by arcane procedural traditions, the institution earned the disdain of voters from all political parties and persuasions. “[N]o other body in the world takes up so much time and spends so much money doing nothing,” groused the editors of the Washington Post, who scorned the “wonderful inertia of this unwieldy and self-shackled body.”

Many people thought that the House needed a dictator to make order out of chaos. Which is precisely what it got. With his ascension in late 1889, Rep. Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine—Czar Reed, as his opponents soon dubbed him—applied ruthless energy and discipline to the task of making Congress work. He remains to this day one of most commanding incumbents to occupy this sometimes powerful but more often unwieldy constitutional office. Like a small handful of speakers who preceded and followed him, he ruled the House and did not for one second let it rule him. 

The long evolution of the speakership yields several clues about what it takes to succeed. The most effective speakers had to get their hands dirty, whether that meant carting in ailing congressmen on stretchers, recording members as present while they cowered under their desks or serving up libations to powerful committee chairmen. Those who did it best made the rules up as they went along. They combined force of personality with a keen sense of timing and opportunity. Above all, they understood that power in Congress is a simple equation: 50 percent plus one. ...

Read entire article at Politico

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