Wagner sees big changes under Speaker Paul Ryan | St. Louis Public Radio

Wagner sees big changes under Speaker Paul Ryan

Nov 23, 2015

It might be hard to imagine that less than a month ago, House Republicans were in turmoil; sharply divided over their future and what they were looking for in a new leader. They were so divided that there were serious questions as to whether any one person could bring all of their internal factions together.

All that animosity and anger seems to be a distant memory, at least from the outside looking in, and based on conversations with several House Republicans.

In his acceptance speech, Paul Ryan said the House was “broken.” He promised to change the chamber’s top-down management structure.

Ballwin Republican Rep. Ann Wagner says that, while there’s more work to do, Ryan is making visible changes. “We are having many, many more conferences meeting. We used to have just maybe one a week. We’re doing a minimum of two policy conference meetings a week and then (we’re) having a lot of side-bar meetings with different committees.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin
Credit Official photo

In addition to having more discussions over legislation, members are also being given a greater voice in crafting those bills and in setting the House agenda, she said. Leadership is “not just talking at us - not just saying ‘OK, here’s the schedule for next week’,” but members are now being asked what they’d like to see on the schedule for the next week. She says they are also being asked, “What is it that we can work toward, that brings us all together?”

House Republicans are already well into crafting an omnibus funding bill for the government, according to Wagner. Lawmakers must pass the omnibus spending plan by midnight Dec. 11 to avert a government shutdown. In the past, many members felt left out of that process until it was time to vote.

“Speaker Ryan, has done a fantastic job. … I’m seeing the House much more open and transparent,” Wagner told St. Louis Public Radio.

Probably the biggest change she sees under Ryan is the speaker’s willingness to champion the House Republican agenda and their accomplishments in the media. “We are really doing quite a lot of business in the House … that no-one was talking about.”

One of the big frustrations on the part of House Republicans that contributed to the unrest and former Speaker John Boehner’s departure was the pressure from conservative voters back home, complaining that nothing appeared to be getting done. That frustration on the part of the Republican base seems to be heightened since last year’s election that put control of both the House and Senate in Republican hands.  Wagner says that "messaging" by Ryan will go a long way toward easing the concerns of the Republican base.

Senate rules

In reality, the House has sent more than 346 bills to the Senate this year, but relatively few have seen the light of day, due in large part to longstanding Senate rules designed to ensure the voice of the minority is heard in negotiations.  

Senate Republicans hold the majority with 54 seats, but it takes 60 votes to bring a bill up for consideration. That rule allowed Senate Democrats to block all 12 appropriations bills - prior to the bi-partisan budget act agreement. Senate Democrats were trying to force Republicans to negotiate an end to sequester spending caps.

At the time, Wagner insisted that the Senate change its rules to put more bills on the president’s desk, even if that meant vetoes for many issues important to conservatives. And she wasn’t alone. The House revolt, combined with frustrations on the part of conservative constituents, put Senate Republican leaders in a bind. Outwardly, they didn’t want to appear to be swayed by pressure from the House, but neither did they want to ignore the anger that had forced Boehner’s departure.

Internally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved quickly to put in place a review of the chamber’s rules. Senate leadership has avoided using the phrase “task force” to describe the group of senators looking at how the rules might be changed ahead of the next Congress. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the rules committee is one of several lawmakers undertaking that review.

Blunt spoke with reporters earlier this month just outside the Senate’s main entrance and said the review was “progressing.” He added that the group is looking to see whether there are “easier ways to get bills to the floor and still maintain the ability of the minority in the Senate to be heard.” He also said that at some point he hopes to have some ideas to discuss with Democrats. But he insists that any rule changes will have to be done in accordance with current rules - meaning “a two-thirds vote” by the full Senate.

For her part, Wagner says she understands that the Senate is a “more deliberative body” and that constitutionally its rules are designed to protect the minority party’s voice in negotiations, but she also “strongly” believes the Senate should consider allowing appropriations bills to move to the floor for consideration based on a simple majority vote, rather than the current 60-vote threshold. “When it comes to appropriations bills, the real work that Congress ought to be doing; the real work that embodies the power of the purse … comes through the appropriations process … and I would like to see the threshold lowered to a 51 vote, majority-rule-process (in the Senate) when it comes to appropriations bills.”

Wagner points to the House’s ability to move all 12 appropriations bills out of committee. She says she only wants to see the rule change for appropriations bills and not the myriad of other issues taken up by the Senate. Wagner also says that she would be comfortable with that rule change even if Senate Democrats were to regain the majority.