WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan’s surprise retirement announcement Wednesday ensures a dramatic overhaul in congressional leadership next year, which could have wide-ranging effects on defense debates in an already politically fractured legislature.
Ryan, R-Wis., said in a press conference Wednesday he will step down from his leadership role and his congressional seat at the end of the current session. He cited family reasons for the move, and called the recent $700 billion defense budget deal one of the highlights of his nearly 20 years in office.
“After tax reform, addressing our military’s readiness crisis was a top priority,” he said. “These I see as lasting victories that will make this country more prosperous and more secure for decades to come.”
Ryan’s departure had been rumored for months, and comes amid a host of Republican House departures in advance of the November midterm elections. So far, 45 GOP House members have announced they are retiring or seeking other office, raising questions of whether the caucus can maintain its majority next year.
Ryan, the third man in line to the presidency, said he is confident Democrats will not pick up enough seats in the looming elections to take over leadership of the chamber, and that his announcement will not affect the midterm results.
But it does set up a leadership battle within the Republican caucus in coming months, and takes away one of defense hawks’ strongest advocates for increasing military spending.
For years, tax and entitlement reform have been Ryan’s main legislative focus on Capitol Hill. But since President Donald Trump took office, Ryan has become a driving force for Trump’s repeated promises to “rebuild the military” through increased defense spending.
When skeptical members opposed the two-year budget deal negotiated with Democrats earlier this year, Ryan repeatedly referenced the benefits for the armed forces and the need to keep faith with warfighters by providing proper resources.
“He gave our men and women in uniform the financial security they need by passing a two-year budget deal,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services’ tactical air and land forces subcommittee. “He has led the House exceptionally, and I thank him for his public service that has undoubtedly bettered our country.”
The two-year budget bill has already set military spending for fiscal 2019 at $716 billion, but Ryan will likely still have to stump on behalf of that total in the waning months of his leadership against fiscal hawks.
It’ll also be a key early fight for his eventual replacement.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., are seen as the most likely replacements, and have been discussing the possibility of taking over the speaker role with members in recent months.
House Armed Services Seapower Chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va., said he believes Ryan’s work to elevate defense funding issues in the caucus will have a positive long-term impact.
“I’m confident that whoever comes into a leadership position, that they’re aware of the importance of defense, that they’re aware of the whole debate,” Wittman said.
After President Trump signed the 2018 budget deal, Scalise appeared on Fox News to argue on its behalf, saying the increased top-line would give certainty an underfunded military. A few weeks later, he hosted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at a private dinner with several Republican members, according to Politico.
McCarthy had the support of defense hawks in the 2015 race for House speaker. After then-Speaker John Boehner announced his departure, McCarthy showcased his views as a Reaganite, internationalist conservative in a broad foreign policy speech sponsored by the conservative John Hay Initiative.
Following Ryan’s announcement, McCarthy issued a statement praising the speaker for the ongoing effort of “rebuilding our military” and last year’s tax reform legislation. “Paul’s leadership has pulled each of these and countless other victories across the finish line.”
Defense industry lobbyist Michael Herson, the CEO of American Defense International called Ryan’s departure “a blow to the defense industry” but said both McCarthy and Scalise are “regularly personally engaged with the defense industry” and “will show the same unwavering support for a strong defense top line going forward.”
Jim Moran, formerly a long-time appropriator in the House, foresaw Ryan’s departure having no major impact on the balance of defense and non-defense spending.
He predicted Scalise will take Ryan’s place.
Because Scalise and Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman and now secretary of state nominee, come from similar political backgrounds and share a “hard right” political philosophy, that likely eases the path in Congress on national security issues, Moran said.
“A lot of people see Scalise as far right of center,” Moran said. “There’s probably a little more compatibility, a simpatico between the two.”
If Democrats reclaim power in the House, many of those Republican leadership fights will become moot.
Democrats have supported military spending hikes in recent years but only when tied to similar boosts in non-defense spending. They argue that agencies like the State Department and homeland security cannot be cut sharply without danger to national security, and that Republicans have not done enough to cut back on military waste and excess.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.