Paul Ryan and the Changing Nature of Congress

Paul Ryan. (Photo: Getty)

Paul Ryan. (Photo: Getty)

When Congress convenes in 2015, Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican nominee for Vice President, will chair the Ways and Means committee–arguably the most important committees in the House of Representatives, exercising jurisdiction over taxing and spending policy. For Mr. Ryan, who has sought to position himself as the leading Republican congressional thinker on issues of budgeting and spending, this is a very good post. It will allow the Wisconsin Republican to have a national platform to discuss budget questions, and will give him substantial influence over congressional decisions about many budget related issues.

News of Mr. Ryan’s new post immediately renewed speculation that he would run for President in 2016. But Mr. Ryan faces long odds should he seek his party’s nomination for President. He has never won an election–even at the statewide level. And while he did not embarrass himself as the Republican candidate for Vice President, he did not distinguish himself either.

The question of whether or not Ryan runs for President will provide some insight into how Congress works today. For much of the 20th Century, the chair of the Ways and Means committee was one of the most powerful people in government. People like Dan Rostenkowski and Wilbur Mills wielded tremendous influence for many years in Washington and never risked that power to run for President. In part because congressional Republicans limit members to six years as a committee chair, Mr. Ryan, regardless of his interest and expertise in tax policy, will not be able to achieve similar power through chairing the Ways and Means Committee. Tom Downey, a former Democratic Congressman who served from 1975-1993, argued that “Republicans were right to term limit the Chairman, but the term limit is too short…There is way more to be said for real expertise, understanding subtlety and nuance.” In this context, chairing the Ways and Means Committee does not mean what it once did, so a possible longshot bid for the Presidency might seem more appealing to Mr. Ryan.

Should Mr. Ryan choose to run for president, it would also be evidence that the institutional power of the House of Representatives is beginning to wane. “Congress has changed in bad ways because it is now so overwhelmed by the need to raise money,” said Mr. Downey, who is currently a lobbyist. “The best fundraisers rise to the top. So much time and energy has been taken away from their ability to know one another…spend time in Washington trying to deal with complex problems, understand things.”

Should Mr. Ryan seek the presidency, he would be just one of many of his generation of members of congress, like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, who increasingly see the body as a stopover on the way to higher office, rather than a place to work and build a power base over many years. President Barack Obama, of course, followed a similar career path, running for President after a only a short time in Congress, indicating that this is not a partisan issue. This development demonstrates how Congress is becoming a less powerful partner in the lawmaking process than even a generation ago.

Lincoln Mitchell in national political correspondent for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell