Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, And a Return to Congressional Government?

Last week’s announcement by House Speaker Paul Ryan that he will vote for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in November received widespread attention from political commentators. However, few noted the reason behind Mr. Ryan’s public endorsement of Trump: The speaker believes Mr. Trump will effectively cede policy-making authority to Republicans in Congress.

Writing in his hometown Janesville Gazette, the House speaker spent time outlining the agenda he has worked to frame since taking office in September—creating policy teams tasked with formulating an alternative to Obamacare, principles for tax reform, an anti-poverty agenda, and more. Noting that Hillary Clinton likely wouldn’t embrace the principles behind the Republican agenda, “we need a Republican president willing to sign [this agenda] into law,” he said.

Mr. Ryan clearly believes that “the House can be a driver of policy ideas”—in fact, he said as much in his article endorsing Trump. Mr. Ryan justified his endorsement of the businessman as a practical means to enact the agenda he and his fellow House Republicans are developing: “House Republicans are helping shape that Republican vision by offering a bold policy agenda, by offering a better way ahead. Donald Trump can help us make it a reality.”

What Mr. Ryan proposes—and what the speaker believes Mr. Trump has endorsed—would amount to the greatest ceding of a policy agenda from the executive to the legislature in over two decades. The arrangement echoes then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, which dominated headlines following the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress. For a time, House Republicans so controlled the policy agenda that in April 1995, President Bill Clinton plaintively pleaded in a prime-time television news conference: “I am relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance.”

For all Mr. Trump’s ability to generate headlines or set Twitter alight, Mr. Ryan envisions a scenario where a President Trump, if not entirely irrelevant, would give Republicans in Congress the lead role in formulating a governing agenda. While Mr. Trump has thus far shown little interest in policy nuances, Mr. Ryan’s gambit appears based on the premise that, when and if he takes office, Mr. Trump will continue to outsource most of his agenda to Congressional Republicans. We’ll see if this arrangement will wear well for Speaker Ryan, Republicans in Congress, or Mr. Trump himself.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.