With Congress locked in near-continuous budget and debt limit battles, one influential lawmaker has been noticeably quiet this year.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the House Budget chairman and the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, has been a trusted, go-to source on budget and fiscal issues in the party for years. Yet the Wisconsin Republican has not, seemingly, been at the forefront of the most recent fight over a stopgap spending bill, nor has he been a loud voice on the debt limit.
And that has some Republicans scratching their heads.
“It’s a legitimate question. I have no idea,” Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah said in response to a question about why Ryan hasn’t been more vocal.
“I don’t know that I can really answer that question,” said House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas of Oklahoma. “Maybe he’s got a lot of things going on. I just don’t know.”
Republican after Republican spoke highly of the GOP star, saying Ryan remains a thought-leader in the conference.
“He is certainly someone that all of us look to for his ability as a budgetary technician,” said Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona. “His advice, I think, is always not only insightful, but has a compelling impact on most of the members of the conference.”
But even aides who note that Ryan has been vocal behind closed doors say he could be more active.
“Members obviously trust and respect his position on these issues — it’d be helpful to hear more from him in selling our package to the conference,” a senior GOP aide told CQ Roll Call.
Ryan hasn’t been seen standing side by side with leadership selling various continuing resolution or debt limit strategies to the American people, as he once did. Nor has he been seen standing up to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or bringing a dose of sobering political and economic reality to the fight to defund Obamacare.
Instead, Ryan has largely stayed out of the divisive intraparty battles over budget issues. Though he successfully pushed an austere budget resolution through the House earlier this year, he has said little as spending bills crafted under his blueprint have failed to garner rank-and-file GOP support.
Asked why he hasn’t been more visible on these economic issues, Ryan said he's still "doing my job."
“Just because you haven’t seen me on TV every day — I say things when I have something meaningful to say,” Ryan told CQ Roll Call.
Members and aides say Ryan has been quietly engaged and engaging.
“Chairman Ryan continues to be a leader on these issues,” a House leadership aide told CQ Roll Call. “He has worked with us on the debt limit and CR strategy.”
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said Ryan is involved, even if he hasn’t been at the forefront of the issues.
“Paul Ryan has probably the highest level of intellectual curiosity and direction, and is a team leader that keeps us focused on the answer,” Sessions said. “Paul is not trying to jump in front of these, but he certainly is nowhere on the second row.”
But why isn’t Ryan willing to be out front on those issues?
Republicans were not inclined to speculate, but Democrats had little problem spinning theories.
“I think that the basic dynamic of all this is pretty damn clear,” said House Ways and Means ranking member Sander M. Levin. “They’re divided, there really is no alternative. If they don’t come forth, this economy is badly hurt, and I think a lot of Republicans don’t want to be identified with that.”
The Michigan Democrat said he thought there was “a hesitancy to be associated with the result of what happens from their extremism.”
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., suggested that “Paul is a lot more reasonable than some of the people that you do see in the forefront, certainly he’s more reasonable — and anybody is — than Ted Cruz.”
But as much as Democrats — and Republicans — seem to enjoy criticizing Cruz, the Texas senator has raised his profile with the CR and Obamacare issue, perhaps fueling his presidential prospects.
For Ryan, who is also rumored to be in the running for 2016, the calculus might be exactly the opposite.
By seemingly staying out of the fight, Ryan avoids the blowback if the government shut downs, if Obamacare is not defunded and if Congress fails to raise the debt limit.
For Ryan, name recognition is no problem, and he has always aimed to attract mainstream conservatives, many of whom believe the effort to defund Obamacare is a folly.
Staying silent and keeping off camera allows Ryan to let Congress work its will — and if it really came to it, perhaps he could step in as a fresh voice in the Republican Conference to urge his colleagues to keep the government and the global financial market running.
And Ryan may have calculated that his voice is better heard behind closed doors for now.
Of course, the chairman has been keeping busy. Besides working behind the scenes to find a compromise on immigration, he is writing a book, titled "Where Do We Go From Here?"
Many Republicans have been wondering that themselves and could be looking to Ryan to tell them.