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The End of the Pelosi Era
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The End of the Pelosi Era

Plus: An interview with former House Speaker Paul Ryan.

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi delivers remarks from the House Chambers on Thursday. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision this week not to seek a leadership position in the upcoming Congress, Democrats in the House will have at least two years in the minority to adjust to a new leadership team.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, 52, who currently chairs the Democratic Caucus, has announced he will run for the party’s top spot in the chamber. He has won endorsements from Democratic leaders, including current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn, both in their 80s. If elected by his colleagues, Jeffries would become the first black leader of a party caucus in Congress. 

The stakes are lower since Republicans took back control of the House—the minority party often spends much of its time messaging instead of setting agendas. Still, if he wins the job, Jeffries will manage delicate negotiations with GOP leaders on must-pass government funding bills, among other priorities. 

Though Pelosi, 82, will continue representing her San Francisco district, she told a small group of reporters Thursday she does not plan to act in an advisory role once she steps down from Democratic leadership.

“I have no intention of being the mother-in-law in the kitchen saying, ‘My son doesn’t like the stuffing that way, this is the way we make it in our family,’” Pelosi said. “They will have their vision, they will have their plan.”

Pelosi’s leadership was in many ways historic. First elected to the House in 1987, she became the first woman to hold the speakership in 2007. She has had a hand in major bills over the past two decades, negotiating on the part of Democrats when the party was in the minority and steering legislation through the chamber when in power. When she had control, Pelosi favored a top-down legislative process and empowered the office of the speaker, often bypassing House committees and limiting debate on the House floor.

She was a chief architect of the Affordable Care Act, and ushered sweeping climate, infrastructure, and health care bills through a tight chamber during President Joe Biden’s first two years in office.

Pelosi also played a role in negotiating a new version of a North American trade deal during former President Donald Trump’s tenure—and presided over his two impeachments, the second in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

For decades she’s been known for her fierce criticism of the Chinese government, advocating for human rights such as religious freedom, freedom of speech, and better labor conditions in the country. Pelosi visited Taiwan this summer, enraging Chinese leaders who claim the self-governed island is part of their country.

“The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect,” Pelosi said during a speech Thursday. “I’m grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility.”

A Conversation With Former Speaker Paul Ryan

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan is promoting the American Enterprise Institute’s newly released policy book, American Renewal. He spoke about the book’s ideas—and the upcoming Congress—in a phone interview with The Dispatch this week. Below are highlights of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Haley: I’ve been reading through the AEI book. I haven’t finished it yet, but one early impression as someone who covers Congress is that it doesn’t seem like Congress quite has the capacity or the willpower to dig into a lot of the issues tackled in this report. What needs to happen for members of Congress to take this debate seriously?

Ryan: The point of the book is to help raise the level of debate to get America to confront its big policy challenges, so we can have another great American century. If we’re going to be able to compete with the likes of China, and if we’re going to be able to fulfill the legacy of leaving the next generation better off, then we’ve got some serious internal challenges that we have to overcome to make good on this promise. And that should be measured against the fact that if we do nothing, we will walk ourselves into a debt crisis, under which you’ll then have to commit to really ugly austerity economics.

Haley: I’ve been following some of the debate among Democrats on whether they should try to get the debt ceiling addressed in the lame duck session. And it seems like they might not. GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy has said House Republicans may use the debt ceiling deadline next year to negotiate spending cuts, and some candidates for top committee spots said to Bloomberg that Republicans should use that leverage to enact entitlement reforms? What do you think of that strategy?

Ryan: Well, I’m not going to armchair quarterback the play calls by new incoming leaders in Congress. That’s just not my role. I don’t think it’d be really appropriate because I’ve been in these jobs, and I didn’t want the guy who had the job telling me how to do it. 

I think the key is that we move on to a substantive debate about what solutions are needed to get America on the right track, to have durable prosperity and upward mobility and a solvent social safety net. Because right now, it’s going insolvent, and if we don’t do anything, we will have a very ugly debt crisis. We know this is coming. It’s the most predictable economic catastrophe we’ve ever had.

Haley: I listened to your podcast with Brendan Buck recently, and you sounded pretty confident about McCarthy’s ability to manage the Republican conference. I know you said you don’t want to armchair quarterback, but just looking at the margins, it seems very difficult for anyone to manage this conference, especially on tough debates like government funding bills and the debt ceiling. If you were still speaker, how would you approach a margin like this?

Ryan: It’s going to be definitely challenging. The tighter the margin, the harder the job. That’s why I still think if anybody can figure out how to do it, it’s Kevin. He really understands the institution well and he understands the members very well. He’s a very good manager of people and members. So I think he’s the right guy for the job. I fully expect him to get the job. I actually think the tight margins serve sort of as a forcing mechanism to get the broad swath of the conference to understand they have to work together to be successful.

Haley: I read some of the Freedom Caucus’ demands. It was a document they put out over the summer with institutional changes. For example, allowing committee members to elect chairmen directly instead of leadership nominating them. What do you think of that kind of proposal?

Ryan: I think Nancy Pelosi massively consolidated power into leadership in Congress, and it needs to be decentralized. I think the new majority needs to rebuild the institution of Congress from the bottom-up so that individual members of Congress are more empowered to do their jobs and to decentralize power throughout the institution so committees of jurisdiction and members of committees are actually the ones writing the bills. I do think fundamentally that involves fixing the budget process. When I was speaker, I tried to do this bicameral committee that I created with Steve Womack chairing, but that won’t happen unless it becomes bipartisan. You can’t change fundamentally how the institution works unless you get Democrats and Republicans agreeing on how to rewrite the budget process. But within what a speaker can control, I do think Kevin is in the right mind, and my guess is Freedom Caucus guys are thinking the same thing: How do you re-empower members of Congress and decentralize control so it’s not so consolidated? How do you make sure committees write bills and they go through the Rules Committee and then to the floor, and not going straight past Rules from the speaker’s office to the floor? Things like that, I think, will rejuvenate the institution the way it was designed to work. 

Haley: I know that was one of your priorities when you were speaker, but I do remember you had a lot of closed rules. You broke a record at one point. 

Ryan: The minority party tries to basically defeat your bills and to play these gotcha politics. You know, expediency can rule the day sometimes. But if the other side’s not negotiating or working in good faith, and they’re trying to kill your legislation by virtue of manipulating the rules, then leadership has an obligation to try and structure rules so you can actually pass legislation. That’s not new. The question is, do the committees write the bills, or are these bills just written in the back of the speaker’s office? The current speaker, Nancy, dramatically consolidated power in the institution, and I think Kevin will be well-suited—and I know he thinks this—to decentralize the power back to the committee process.

Haley: Do you think with a tight majority like this, decentralization is the only way to manage the conference?

Ryan: I don’t know if it’s the only way. I think it’s the best way. I think you want people to have an ownership stake in the outcomes of what Congress does. And by giving rank-and-file members real authority to work inside their committee process, writing and drafting and negotiating legislation and bringing that legislation to the floor and defending it on the floor is going to get you the best product. But it’s also going to get you buy-in.

Haley: One news-of-the-day question for you. Donald Trump announced this week he’s running for president again. How do you feel about that? How do you think most Republicans should be feeling about that? Would you caution anyone from endorsing him this early?

Ryan: I think it’s pretty obvious if we want to win, we’re going to have to move on. I think we’ve got a great next generation of conservative leaders that are more capable of winning the presidency and congressional elections than what our experience with Trump has been. We lost the House in ’18, the White House and the Senate in ’20. We failed to get the Senate this election, and we got a smaller majority than we otherwise would have but for Trump. So I think it’s really clear that if we stick with Trump, we’re going to keep losing. I think that our voters are going to know this as well. We have a great stable of next-generation conservatives that are much more capable of winning elections, and that’s where we’re going to have to go if we want to win.

Haley: Because you mentioned that next generation, are you a fan of Ron DeSantis? I know many are bringing him up.

Ryan: There’s so many good ones. I think it’s too soon to pick who your favorite is. My favorite is someone not named Trump, and I’m going to stick with that right now.

Meanwhile …

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.