The Paul Ryan Compromise

The new speaker’s first big deal is just like all of the ones that infuriated conservatives under Boehner.

Paul Ryan budget deal.
House Speaker Paul Ryan talks to reporters following the weekly House GOP Conference meeting at the Capitol on Dec. 16, 2015, in Washington.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Paul Ryan was handed the speaker’s gavel in late October, he pledged to restore normal order to the People’s House and eliminate the sort of backroom deals that rank-and-file members complain are shoved down their throats at the 11th hour. So, late Tuesday night, Ryan unveiled a few thousand pages of consequential tax, spending, and regulatory legislation costing roughly $2 trillion and gave Congress and the public two whole days to review everything.

To be fair to Ryan, the buzzer-beating legislating has more to do with the workload and deadlines John Boehner left him than anything he did wrong. The agreement Ryan reached with fellow congressional negotiators also looks much like one Boehner would have reached: Each side scores some points, but Republican congressional majorities again will fail to deliver a high-profile, base-pumping, ideological victory over some nefarious aspect of the “Obama agenda” on which conservatives had drawn a red line. Will this land Ryan in the same hot water that eventually cooked Boehner? He’ll get a pass, for now.

The two towering paper stacks are the 2016 omnibus appropriations package, which funds the government through next September, and a “tax-extenders” bill that, well, extends (and in many cases makes permanent) a bunch of tax breaks that were set to expire. Though they will be voted on separately, they were negotiated together. The omnibus is more favorable to Democrats, and the tax extenders are more favorable to Republicans.

Considered as a whole, an overriding theme is that everyone gets a lot of money but neither side hammers home that big-ticket ideological victory. In other words, it’s a compromise, something Democrats usually accept as part of the process while Republicans scream bloody murder.

Republicans’ major “get” in the omnibus is a lift on the longtime ban of crude oil exports. That’s a big deal. But since it’s such a big deal, Democrats dangled it to win all sorts of other concessions of their own (even if these were mainly concessions to the status quo). In terms of energy and the environment, Democrats won multiyear extensions of critical tax credits for solar and wind energy production. They successfully nixed a rider that would have blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed “waters of the United States” rule that would expand its jurisdiction against polluters under the Clean Water Act. Riders blocking proposed regulations of power plants were cut out. The U.S. government’s contributions to the international Green Climate Fund will continue, a crucial component of the Paris climate agreement.

Somehow the financial services industry, which owns the United States Congress, came up on the losing end too. A provision that would designate fewer financial institutions as “systemically important” (and thus subject to greater oversight under Dodd-Frank) was dropped. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will maintain its independence from congressional appropriations—i.e., Republicans who want to defund it. Another rider that would have blocked a proposed Labor Department rule better aligning financial advisers with their clients’ interests was cut.

The Zadroga Act, a health care and compensation fund for 9/11 first responders and nearby workers, will be reauthorized until 2090, a hilarious year to settle on but one that effectively means permanent. Jon Stewart is an effective lobbyist.

Conservatives also lost on their most well-publicized demands that have dominated cable news.Language restricting Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement, defunding Planned Parenthood, or blocking President Obama’s executive actions on immigration will not be included. (The Senate will, however, take up the stand-alone Syrian and Iraqi refugee bill that passed the House with a veto-proof majority. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has said that it will not fare nearly as well there.) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s annual chip-away at campaign finance regulations, which this year would have blown up the McCain-Feingold fundraising coordination caps between parties and campaigns, did not make it through. (This was an interesting fight, in which Democrats joined up with Tea Party conservatives who don’t want to enhance the power of party committees.)

Meanwhile, over in tax-extenders land, Republicans made all sorts of business tax breaks permanent without any new way to pay for them, so, hooray! This roughly $600 billion package of treats includes permanent extensions of the research-and-development tax credit and other depreciation credits. Democrats got extensions of certain tax credits from the 2009 stimulus. Both got to chip away at funding for the Affordable Care Act, by delaying implementation of the so-called Cadillac tax on high-cost health plans (this one was technically tacked onto the omnibus, not the tax package) and the medical device tax. This half of the deal will be a big, fat budget-buster, and it will pass with mostly Republican votes.

Both packages, and the way in which they were negotiated, look … an awful lot like the packages that Boehner would have negotiated and the way in which he would have negotiated them. Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, who have said at various points that they would not vote for a spending bill that funded either Planned Parenthood or Syrian and Iraqi refugee resettlement, are sticking to their word. Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, does not expect his group to support to omnibus and doesn’t even expect that many rank-and-file Republicans to support it either. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, among the more vocal Freedom Caucus members, also predicted that a majority of Republicans would vote against the $1.1 trillion appropriations package that he’s calling the “Boehner legacy bill.”

In other words, Ryan will have to pass the omnibus with the same organic governing coalition of mostly Democrats and some Republicans that Boehner himself used to pass most necessary legislation. That’s a violation of the so-called Hastert rule in which a speaker has pledged to only call up legislation that has support of a majority of the majority party. Ryan assured conservatives that he would abide by this rule if they supported his bid. On his first big funding bill, Ryan will just … not follow the rule that he said he would follow.

That’s great news for America but might be awful news for Ryan in the long run. He’ll get a pass for a number of reasons this time: He’s finishing a process Boehner initiated; he’s offering Republicans a mammoth tax-break package in exchange; and most importantly, Freedom Caucus members would embarrass themselves if they started talking about how Paul Ryan is a failure and must be overthrown this early in his tenure. Perhaps his fetching new manly man-beard also played some sort of hypnotic role on the House Republican Conference.

This appropriations package will expire near the end of the 2016 election, so Congress may pass a continuing resolution then to kick the major political fights past the campaign. Ryan’s next real tests on must-pass legislation should come when there’s a new president. Until then, he can enjoy the honeymoon.

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