Right after the 2012 election, when Republicans trudged glumly back to Washington, Speaker of the House John Boehner found two jobs for Paul Ryan. By Ryan’s request, he would stay on as chairman of the Budget Committee—he’d be the only chairman holding on after his six-year term at the top of a committee had ended. By necessity, he would also join a working group to help Boehner negotiate a way around the “fiscal cliff.” Ryan would partner with Ways and Means Committee chairman Dave Camp and Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton in crafting proposals, strategizing, and calculating. If the White House wanted to talk to Ryan, congressional liaison Rob Nabors knew where to find him.
It’s been a month. While the White House has been talking to Boehner, Ryan hasn’t been so busy. The B-team of Camp, Ryan, and Upton has stayed on the bench. Ryan hasn’t recently met or talked to key negotiators. Ryan’s big moment in the talks, so far, came with the three-page offer that House Republicans sent the president on Dec. 3. According to National Review, Ryan “worked with Boehner to craft” the document. They spent two pages explaining how proud they were of Ryan’s budgets and two paragraphs offering $800 billion of unspecified revenue and $1.2 trillion of unspecified cuts. And the White House rejected that at the speed of Twitter.
Paul Ryan is irrelevant, but that can’t last. No one in modern times has lost a national election and returned to such a powerful role in Congress. John Kerry’s consolation prize was minority status in the Senate. After his loss, George McGovern was so marginalized that he considered moving to England.
The chairman of the House Budget Committee can’t be marginalized. For two years, Ryan was the de facto intellectual leader of the GOP, introducing and passing spending plans that nearly every Republican supported. He’s got two more years of that on the calendar, and his rank-and-file members are thrilled. “The American people are looking to him for ideas,” Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner told me last month. Gardner and other freshman fans of Ryan believe that the vice-presidential campaign, even if a loss, still helped him; without that, Americans “might not have known who he was.”
Ryan’s absence from the “cliff” debate has actually helped his clout—among Republicans. They resent their current position. They passed their budgets (Ryan’s budgets). The media doesn’t seem to take that seriously. Obama’s Democrats haven’t pushed a budget through since 2009; the media doesn’t care.
“Our perspective is, ‘Yes, we think our budget is the way forward,’ ” says Rep. Sean Duffy, a freshman from northwestern Wisconsin and a Ryan stalwart. “The president rejected it. There was an effort to be reasonable and to meet the concerns he had, so we came off the budget a little, but the president needs to lead.”
That’s the polite version of the sentiment. In the Senate, utterly marginalized by the Boehner-Obama talks, Republicans resent that the “cliff” negotiation is so secretive. In a real budget debate, says Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, “You have hearings on it. You have witnesses. You have a debate about what you want, then you have mark-up. That’s the way this should work ... as opposed to seeing on the news: Do Speaker Boehner and President Obama get along? Is it going to be $1 for $2? For $3? That’s drivel. That’s meaningless.”