Paul Ryan wants to change the job of speaker of the House before he takes it. He's right — and he should go farther.
The House of Representatives, like any institution, changes. The old guard of each generation — the gray-haired congressmen, columnists and commentators — lament the changes, and long for a return to the old order. But the old order is often dead and gone, and so it is with the U.S. House.
Before the Tea Party, earmarks were the grease that made the machine run, and K Street fundraisers were the fuel. Now Republicans have banned earmarks, and Citizens United and the Internet have enabled politicians to raise money from grassroots conservatives instead of just from lobbyists.
The ways and the means of Dan Rostenkowski, Tom DeLay, Jim Wright, Bob Livingston and Dennis Hastert aren't coming back, despite the reminiscing of Washington's press corps and lobbying corps. Congress needs to find a new way to operate, and among other things, the speaker's job should change.
Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner tried to run a transformed Congress by the old means. This proved impossible. Conservative gadfly Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) correctly wrote, "The next speaker will suffer the same fate unless he or she approaches the job entirely differently."
Ryan, as a condition for seeking the speaker job, demanded reform of the process that brought down Boehner — the Motion to Vacate.
This matter highlights the unique and oddly precarious role the speaker plays in Congress—and it suggests perhaps a different role for the job than the one Boehner and his recent predecessors played.
The speaker is the only congressional position elected by the entire House of Representatives. While majority leader, minority leader and jobs like committee chairmen are chosen behind closed doors, often through secret ballot, the speaker election is a floor vote, like any bill or amendment. A candidate needs 218 votes to win.
In recent decades, the speaker election was, in practice, effectively indistinguishable from the other leadership elections. The two parties would have a closed-door caucus meeting where hopefuls would vie in a primary of sorts. Whoever won in the caucus vote became the party's nominee on the floor. Thanks to party discipline, the majority's nominee always won.
Even if you opposed Dennis Hastert for speaker behind closed doors, you voted for him on the floor.
The necessary element in these elections was party unity, which isn't quite so strong these days. Thus a small rump of the majority party could oust a sitting speaker.
Through a Motion to Vacate, a member can effectively bring about a recall election of the speaker. If the minority party joined with the disaffected faction of the majority, the speaker's out of his job.
That faction needs to be no larger than the majority's caucus size minus 218. With the current 247 House Republicans, it took 30 dissidents in the majority to oust the speaker.
Meanwhile, ousting the majority leader would take a majority of the majority — 124 of the 247 Republicans.
This points us towards a possible new arrangement in the House: There's no reason the speaker should be the party boss who sets policy and dictates strategy. (And neither the speaker nor the party boss should be the party's fundraiser-in-chief.) Speaker as boss probably made more sense back when party discipline was stronger — back when the K Street-leadership axis had a monopoly on messaging, fundraising and lobbying.
These days, maybe a speaker needs to be an honest broker between the factions of a party, and also with the minority party. Let the members choose the agenda — often within the party system, but often across party lines — and let the speaker make the trains run on time.
In the Senate, the party boss job falls to the majority leader. The House majority leader could take the role of party boss, while the speaker becomes almost a moderator.
Amash suggested something like that: "While the speaker may have a role in policy debates, that role cannot trump his obligation to uphold House process."
The speaker could be the facilitator of debate, and the guardian of process — a parliamentarian above all. If the speaker does this well, his job won't constantly be in jeopardy.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.