As Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., adjusts to his new role in the House, he also takes on a little-recognized responsibility: oversight of the District of Columbia.
Ryan has not served on any of the spending or oversight committees with jurisdiction over D.C., so it is tough to gauge his record. But he has spent nearly half his life as a professional in Washington, and he goes to great pains to distance himself from the capital city. On ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, he told Martha Raddatz: “I don’t live in Washington, D.C. I never really wanted to live here. I just — I just work here,” a talking point he reiterated throughout the day’s media blitz.
Congress exercises unique power over the District, dictating how it spends local and federal dollars and approving its laws. As a top leader, Ryan has the power to shape that agenda as well, but it’s unclear how he might do so.
“We have no reason to believe that he would be adversarial to the District of Columbia,” said Kimberly Perry, executive director of DC Vote, which advocates for District autonomy.
Unlike his predecessor, he has not taken on any projects specific to the District. Former Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, helped establish a D.C. school voucher program before he became leader of the House, and used his powerful position to advocate for the program in the face of Democratic opposition.
Ryan supported Boehner’s program when the House voted to reauthorize it on Oct. 21. But one vote from nearly a decade ago has some D.C. advocates optimistic about where he would side on the District’s push for autonomy.
In 2007, Ryan bucked the majority of his party, joining 22 Republicans to vote in favor of the D.C. House Voting Rights Act, which would have given D.C. a voting representative in the House (currently Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., can vote in committee but not on the House floor). The bill died in the Senate.
Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who sponsored the D.C. voting rights bill, said he spoke with Ryan during that 2007 vote, and called him one of the most earnest members he has ever worked with.
“Paul is a friend to the city. I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Davis said in a recent phone interview. He later added, “I think he understands this is a city that should have a level of self-governance.”
Perry noted that there isn’t much else to predict how Ryan’s speakership could affect the District.
“Aside from the 2007 VRA vote, he hasn’t had to make any decisions that would distinguish him as a friend or foe of D.C.,” Perry said. “So we just don’t know.”
Despite that lack of record, Davis countered, “Remember this: he is a … protégé of Jack Kemp.”
Ryan’s mentor, Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., was a fierce proponent of D.C. voting rights. Kemp’s advocacy for D.C. voting rights, as well as many anti-poverty positions he took as Housing and Urban Development secretary in the administration of George Bush from 1989 to 1993, put him outside GOP orthodoxy.
Norton said in an Oct. 29 statement that she first got to know Ryan through Kemp, and called Ryan a friend. “I see Jack Kemp’s continuing influence on Paul in his outspoken leadership on a Republican approach to poverty, a subject that other Republicans often neglect,” Norton said.
She hopes to schedule a meeting with Ryan soon, as does Perry. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s spokesman was mum on whether the mayor would try to meet with Ryan as well. She met with Ryan’s predecessor soon after she took office.
Bowser’s spokesman Michael Czin wrote in an email, “We look forward to working with the new speaker to advance causes important to District residents.”
The first test for how D.C. fares under the new speaker could come sooner rather than later. As Congress pieces together a spending package with a Dec. 11 deadline, the House and Senate will work to reconcile their bills regarding D.C. funds. Appropriations riders are a common congressional tactic for addressing social policies in the District, and this year is no different.
Though the Senate’s D.C. spending bill is relatively free of them, the House attached several riders, including language blocking the District’s non-discrimination law known as the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act, or RHNDA. The House voted to block RHNDA last spring. Scoring a floor vote on the disapproval resolution was a victory for conservatives in the Republican Study Committee and an early win for the then-burgeoning House Freedom Caucus.
In addition to questions about how Congress will wield its power over D.C. under Ryan’s leadership, Davis argued that the District “can learn a lot from Paul Ryan in terms of programs that work and don’t work.”
“I think he’s going to be a friend to the city, but speaker entails many responsibilities,” Davis said. “But I don’t think he’s going to be a thorn in the city’s side.”