House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s announced retirement predictably left Republicans down in the dumps. Their leader is fleeing an impending political hurricane that threatens to blow them out of their majority in the House (and possibly in the Senate).
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the minority leader, went to the Senate floor to suggest that “with his newfound political freedom, I hope the speaker uses his remaining time in Congress to break free from the hard-right factions of his caucus that have kept Congress from getting real things done. If he’s willing to reach across the aisle, he’ll find Democrats willing and eager to work with him.”
Maybe Ryan should take Schumer’s suggestion seriously. Here are just a few things he might do:
1. Prevent a constitutional crisis
Ryan could agree to bring to the floor one of the bipartisan compromise bills seeking to insulate special counsel Robert S. Mueller III from President Trump’s temper. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group — Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — introduced the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act. In a news release, the group explained that the bill:
Codifies existing Department of Justice regulations to ensure that the special counsel can only be fired for good cause by a senior Justice Department official, and the reason must be provided in writing.
Provides the special counsel a 10-day window in which he can seek expedited judicial review of his removal to determine whether the firing was for good cause. If the firing is ultimately determined to have violated the good-cause requirement, the removal will not take effect.
Preserves the staffing, documents, and materials of the investigation while the matter is pending.
For the first time, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) agreed to take it up with his committee, but one can expect Republicans to delay consideration, if not in committee, then on the way to the floor. Schumer pleaded with Republicans to take it up. “The evidence is staring us all in the face. We cannot ignore the elephant in the room any longer. Because the consequences of the president taking action against Mueller, [Deputy Attorney General Rod J.] Rosenstein, or issuing political pardons is just too dire.” He reiterated that “such action would precipitate a constitutional crisis in this country.”
Imbued with his “newfound political freedom,” Ryan could take up the measure in the House (by a discharge petition if need be). Passing protections for Mueller, frankly, would be a gift to Trump — in essence protecting him from his own impulsiveness — and to Republicans, who could tell voters they actually took their constitutional responsibilities seriously.
Ryan has always been a free-trader. He has also made it a goal for Congress to claw back its constitutional powers, which too frequently have been handed to the executive branch. Now, he has a chance to protect the economy, halt a trade war and reassert Congress’s authority. All he would need to do is reverse the legislation that granted the president the unilateral power to enact tariffs in the name of “national security.”
Under the Constitution, Congress has sole power to levy tariffs. In Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress is granted the “Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States,” and “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.” Congress however chose to delegate some of that power to the president in Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which Trump relied on to levy aluminum and steel tariffs under the national-security exception. Reuters explained: “The WTO allows a national security exemption from its rules, but it has never been used as a defense in a trade dispute. . . . A U.S. dispute involving national security would threaten WTO discipline, since other countries would probably follow suit and use it to justify their own claims to be exempt from the rules.” It is entirely within Congress’s constitutional power to reclaim its power, repeal Section 232 and help permanently stave off trade wars based on bogus national-security claims.
3. Put a clean DACA fix on the floor of the House
A bill to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in exchange for enhanced border security would have support from most Democrats, and a smattering of moderate Republicans — likely enough to pass the House. A resolution for “dreamers” would be Ryan’s greatest contribution to defanging xenophobic populism. A DACA fix might also give endangered Republicans in Florida, Texas and California a lifeline. Ryan repeatedly said he wanted a DACA fix; now he can make it a reality.
There is no reason Ryan, who claims to be a pro-immigration, pro-free trade Republican and a “constitutional conservative,” could not address all three of these issues. (If a Democrat were in the White House, he almost certainly would protect a special prosecutor and free trade.) If he undertakes these initiatives, he could regain the respect of principled conservatives, rescue his legacy (in part) and be remembered for something other than running up the debt and enabling a protectionist, anti-immigration president who set news lows for fidelity to the Constitution.
So what’s stopping him?