Barring something extraordinary, which can never be fully discounted these days, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan will be elected Speaker of the House on Thursday. Invitations to his victory party are already circulating through D.C., in fact.
If Ryan’s staffing choices are any indication, however, his Speakership will largely be the same as the old Speakership.
Last week, Ryan announced he was hiring lobbyist Dave Hoppe as his Chief of Staff. Hoppe is a seasoned, and respected, veteran of both Capitol Hill and the K Street lobbying corridor. He, like Ryan, worked for Jack Kemp. Hoppe was also Chief of Staff for Republican Leader Sen. Trent Lott, among other members. For the past several years, he has had a successful lobbying practice on behalf of several major corporations and interests.
Ryan’s communications director is likely to be Brendan Buck, who was a senior aide to Speaker John Boehner. Joyce Meyer, currently staff director of Ryan’s Ways and Means Committee, will fill a key role on the new Speaker’s staff. The rest of Ryan’s team is likely to be a mix of former Boehner aides and members of Ryan’s congressional or committee staff.
No doubt, each of these individuals is smart, competent and well-respected. They are each long-time veterans of Capitol Hill and the other corridors of Washington’s power structure.
Therein, though, lies the problem.
The problem facing Republican leadership in Washington is not really one of political philosophy. Speaker Boehner, throughout his time in Washington, was often a champion of several conservative causes, especially school choice. Long before he was Speaker, Boehner actually revived the fight that successfully ratified the so-called “Madison Amendment,” which blocked Congress from receiving pay raises until after a subsequent election.
Paul Ryan has been one of the leading conservative policy leaders on budget and entitlement reform. His policy ideas are generally sketched within the lines of the political status quo, but they provide a general blueprint for reform, at least on the margins.
The existential threat to the Republican party isn’t really one of policy positions, but rather a question of priorities, a strategic view of what’s achievable, a commitment to advance basic principles and an appreciation of the urgency felt by voters.
By surrounding himself with D.C. political veterans, incoming Speaker Ryan is likely to perpetuate the leadership priorities that most voters, especially Republicans, find so frustrating. The phenomenon that has pushed outsider, anti-establishment candidate to the top of the Republican field isn’t a rejection of Speaker Boehner personally, but a Washington mindset that seems to push an agenda foreign to average voters.
The example Monday, where almost 70 rank-and-file Republicans joined Democrats to challenge GOP leadership and force a vote on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, is a case in point. Setting aside the policy arguments surrounding the Bank, its an issue few voters have heard about and even fewer care about. The action by many Republicans Monday on this issue is the legislative equivalent of a coup.
Republican voters may ask why these lawmakers aren’t willing to go to such extraordinary lengths to challenge the Obama Administration. The difference is that the establishment in Washington cares greatly about the Export-Import Bank. These lawmakers are willing to take a defiant stance in support of the DC establishment, but not, apparently, in support of average voters.
Ryan’s staffing decisions, to date, suggest that his Speakership will be led by the same sort of people that have aided previous Leaders. He’s a new sheriff, but he’ll be largely the same as the old sheriff. It is long past the time that new blood, from outside the D.C. political industrial complex, be brought into the hallowed halls of Congress.
Surely there is someone with experience managing legislative affairs in a state Legislature that could provide a new perspective. Perhaps even a senior voice from outside the Washington carnival would look at issues with a different set of premises. Is there no role for a former business executive or CEO who could exemplifying the Republicans’ rhetorical homages to the superior performance of the private sector?
The fundamental challenge facing lawmakers in Washington is that there has never been a wider gulf between voters and elected officials in D.C. They really do live in different worlds. Paul Ryan, notwithstanding the talk of his youth or innovative ideas, is continuing an old Washington tradition as he begins his Speakership.
Same old stuff, different names.