The brain drain from departing House Republicans with policy expertise had sparked worry among party insiders even before Speaker Paul D. Ryan announced his plans to retire.
Now, the extraordinary attrition, along with a potentially brutal upcoming midterm campaign, is enough to send the GOP into panic mode.
Ryan’s exit won’t simply open up the top job in the House, something the November elections may accomplish anyway. It also means House Republicans will need to find a political leader who can herd an often fractured conference and raise gobs of campaign cash.
Even more difficult to fill, the Wisconsinite’s departure leaves a vacancy for a leader who can serve as the intellectual standard-bearer and, however muffled, a sometime moral voice of reason for the party of President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill.
Though Ryan’s successor, whoever that may be, could well grow into those aspects of the job, no one on the short list has that level of policy gravitas. House Republicans may find themselves waiting.
“Speaker Ryan is utterly unique in the fact that he is a conservative intellectual policy thinker, in the mold of Jack Kemp, who has also achieved the highest levels in leadership in the House,” said Michael Steel, a former House GOP leadership aide who was Ryan’s spokesman during his vice presidential run in 2012.
Watch: Lawmakers Seem to Like Ryan’s Lame-Duck Speakership Plan
Kemp, a mentor to Ryan who died in 2009, was a New York congressman known for his conservative economic ideals and pleas to his fellow Republicans to help minorities and the poor.
Some Republicans say the House GOP turnover may present an opening for the party’s farm team to rise in the coming years to fill the void, while potentially even relaxing control of the legislative process from the leadership’s grip and returning it to the committees.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who has Ryan’s support to be his successor, likely could step into the fundraising duties — and would bring a more seamless connection to Trump.
McCarthy and Scalise do have policy interests. A McCarthy-sponsored measure directing the Transportation Department to study any potential adverse effects of construction on space navigation became law in 2016. And Scalise has proposed broadband and energy measures as well as a bill (that would allow tax-exempt organizations to do more political campaigning without risk of losing their tax status.
Not only is Ryan set to retire, but so are House committee chairmen who have put their stamp on policy — such as Jeb Hensarling at Financial Services, Robert W. Goodlatte at Judiciary, Bill Shuster at Transportation and Infrastructure, and Ed Royce at Foreign Affairs.
“Where’s our party going to go? There’s no Newt Gingrich in the pack, no Paul Ryan in the pack,” said Zach Wamp, a former House member from Tennessee. “Who’s going to emerge, I believe, it’s going to be new people.”
Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who will resign from Congress in May, agrees that the departures at the top may nudge the House GOP’s policy vision to the committee level and that the job openings could allow new voices to flourish in the coming years.
Dent, considered a leader of the Republican Conference’s governing wing, is a believer that policy innovation should be driven at the committee level — something Ryan did as chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means committees.
“Leaders need to have very strong policy chops,” Dent said.
“The next leader, of course, is going to have to be strong both on the policy as well as the political aspects of the job,” he said. “But if you ask me, I think you rely more on the committee chairs for intellectual policy heft and the leaders for matters more political.”
That’s not been the case since the Gingrich revolution of the 1990s, when leadership offices consolidated power over both policy and politics.
Some who could step up and shape policy are relative newcomers. Wamp points to freshman Rep. Mike Gallagher, a 34-year-old Marine veteran representing a Wisconsin district who has budding expertise in national security policy.
“He’s a change agent,” Wamp said. “He’s going to command the respect of everybody around him.”
The former Tennessee lawmaker also names Rep. Dave Brat, the Virginia Republican who unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a shocking primary upset in 2014. A member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Brat is a numbers guy. He taught economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, before taking his congressional seat.
Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, the House GOP’s chief deputy whip who serves as vice chairman of the Financial Services Committee, may also see his profile rise across policy matters, say lobbyists who regularly work with him.
Since taking the speaker’s gavel in October 2015, Ryan has been a proficient fundraiser for the party who built on the network of his predecessor John A. Boehner of Ohio and from his own days as the party’s vice presidential nominee.
Big donors also gravitated to Ryan’s policy ideas, specifically his long-held desire to revamp the nation’s tax code, something that came largely to fruition in last year’s overhaul, and his unsuccessful plan to remake entitlement programs.
Absent an overarching, sweeping policy vision, the party’s next House leader will still become a sought-after fundraiser and donor magnet, said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a New Yorker who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2006 election cycle.
Both McCarthy and Majority Whip Scalise have ties to the K Street lobbying corridor and representatives of the nation’s business community in Washington, offering them an advantage in Beltway fundraising.
The rest of the current House GOP leadership team will “have to step up even more to help the conference, as will others,” in order to raise political money, added Reynolds, now a lobbyist with Holland & Knight.
“All of that team has to come together to do that,” Reynolds said.
He also believes that Republicans who now lead subcommittees will rise into new roles to conceive and shape the party’s policy platform.
“I’m an optimist. There’s always going to be turnover in the House, and there are always going to be able members of Congress to fill that void,” Reynolds said.
Just like Rep. Kevin Brady, the Texan who took the Ways and Means gavel from Ryan when he became speaker, other lawmakers are poised to move up and can champion major legislative proposals, he said.
Instead of it centering more around one person, such as Ryan or Gingrich, House Republicans’ policy vision may become less centralized.
“The void will be filled by many,” Reynolds said.
Power from the outside?
Ryan, an heir to the Kemp and Reagan ideologies long before becoming speaker, drew up a portfolio of budget, entitlement and tax bills. Though he shepherded last year’s tax measure into law, it is estimated to add more than $1 trillion to the nation’s deficit.
Amid political realities and his role as speaker, Ryan had to abandon a push for entitlement changes. And he never really served as a check on Trump, whose tweets and chaotic style of governing have unmoored the party’s legislative agenda.
“The party now is a Trump party, and so whether I agree or disagree, the leadership of the Freedom Caucus ... is where I think the intellectual leadership of a Trump party in the House would come from, more than anything else,” said G. William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former top Senate Republican aide.
“To be fair about it, I would say that’s not my preference,” Hoagland added.
For his part, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said that taking on the party’s policy and intellectual leadership will rest with whoever is “the new speaker.”
But it’s not that clear.
Some policy insiders predict Ryan himself will continue to dominate the GOP agenda, and particularly his call to recast Social Security and Medicare, from the outside.
Grover Norquist, who runs Americans for Tax Reform, said Ryan could command at least as much influence as a rank-and-file lawmaker — much like his mentor Kemp when he began championing what became the 1981 tax cuts — and “drive the vision of entitlement reform from the outside.”
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