House Speaker Paul Ryan has an opportunity to make a difference when the dust settles from this unusual election and Congress returns to legislating. To do so, Ryan will have to take a novel approach to wielding the power that comes with being the most senior member of Congress. Instead of husbanding his political capital in an attempt to maintain his speakership for as long as he can, Ryan actually needs to do the exact opposite — expend such capital rapidly and work himself out of his current job as expeditiously as possible.
Unlike his predecessors, Ryan does not necessarily view the speakership as the capstone of his career. It is no secret that the relatively young speaker harbors higher political ambitions that could carry him to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. To stand a chance of realizing those ambitions though, Ryan has to first score some legacy-worthy accomplishments that allow him to relinquish the speaker's gavel on his own terms.
Ryan has long chased two of the most elusive policy unicorns in Washington — entitlement reform and comprehensive tax reform. Yet as Ryan himself has admitted in recent public remarks, entitlement reform will remain out of reach next year if the Democrats win the Senate and White House and the ongoing legislative gridlock remains intact. Even if Ryan is able to agree with his Democratic counterparts on some poverty reform package, those modest changes will be insufficient for Ryan to declare victory and return to the Badger State to ready a presidential run.
And truly comprehensive tax reform is also out of play as long as Republicans want to lower individual rates while Democrats want to raise them. There is, however, enough bipartisan support for the more discrete but still meaningful goal of corporate tax reform — if Ryan is willing to push his political chips all-in.
The right players will fall into place to achieve corporate tax reform as a result of the post-election power dynamics. Senator Chuck Schumer, with whom Ryan developed a strong rapport when the two sought an international tax reform agreement last year, is the heir apparent to become the Senate majority leader, Ryan's mirror image in the upper chamber. Meanwhile, Senator Ron Wyden, who lacks the full trust of his fellow Democrats due to his independent streak and willingness to cut a deal, will take over the Senate Finance Committee chairmanship. In his own chamber, Ryan's hand-picked successor on the Ways and Means Committee, Representative Kevin Brady, will remain in that pivotal role.