With Republicans fretting about losing control of Congress in the mid-term elections, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has announced he won’t seek re-election, leaving an uneven record on LGBTQ rights and the door open for another Republican to take his place as leader of his caucus.
The 10-term member of Congress, who has served as speaker since 2015, announced during a news conference Wednesday he wouldn’t seek re-election to represent Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district in order to spend more time with his family, confirming news reports about his intended plan earlier in the day.
“There are other things in life that can be fleeting as well, namely your time as a husband and a dad, which is the other great honor of my life.” Ryan said. “That’s why today, I am announcing this year will be my last one as a member of the House.”
Ryan clarified he wouldn’t resign immediately as either a member of Congress or House speaker and would continue to serve in his roles until January after a new Congress is elected in the 2018 mid-term elections.
Touting tax reform and increased military spending as his major achievements, Ryan often clashed with President Trump on a range of issues, including bombastic and offensive statements Trump has made, as well as policy issues such as tariffs.
Under questioning from reporters, Ryan denied his announcement was related to expectations that Democrats would win control of the House in the mid-terms, nor does he think his move would contribute to that outcome.
“I really do not believe whether I stay or go in 2019 is going to affect a person’s individual race for Congress,” Ryan said. “I really don’t think a person’s race for Congress is going to hinge on whether Paul Ryan is speaker or not, so I really don’t think it affects it. Look, if we do our jobs, which we are, we’re going to be fine as a majority.”
As speaker of the House at a time of Republican majorities in Congress, Ryan was no champion of LGBTQ rights. Still, Ryan’s record is different from that of his Republican predecessors, who held multiple votes in opposition to same-sex marriage or constitutional amendments that would have banned it nationwide, or even that of former House Speaker John Boehner, who took it upon the House to defend the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in court and held votes on amendments reiterating support for the law.
No such votes on marriage took place under Ryan. In fact, the most comparable measure in recent years — the First Amendment Defense Act, an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” measure that seeks to prevent the federal government from penalizing opponents of same-sex marriage — saw no vote either in committee or the House floor when Ryan was speaker.
But Ryan’s tenure isn’t free from anti-LGBTQ votes. Last year, he allowed Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) to hold a floor vote on an amendment that sought to bar the U.S. military from making payments for transition-related care, including gender reassignment surgery, for transgender people on the U.S. military’s health care system. The amendment narrowly failed in a surprise defeat on the House floor thanks to opposition from a united Democratic caucus and 24 Republicans.
In the aftermath of the vote, Ryan said he shares the views of House members about the U.S. military paying for gender reassignment surgery, but would defer to the Defense Department on the issue more generally of transgender military service.
“The concern here in the House was whether or not the military will be forced to pay for these surgical procedures,” Ryan said. “I share those concerns.”
President Trump followed up with an all-out ban on transgender military service that included a prohibition on military payments for gender reassignment surgery. Trump recently reaffirmed that ban after recommendations from Defense Secretary James Mattis against transgender service, but the policy remains blocked as a result of litigation filed by LGBTQ legal groups.
Ryan’s tenure also had an indirect anti-LGBTQ impact in another way. After Republicans in 2016 passed as part of major defense policy legislation an amendment from Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) that would have undermined former President Obama’s 2014 executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination, Democrats led by gay Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) sought to hold votes on amendments that would have upheld the directive.
The first vote on his amendment was poised to succeed until seven Republicans changed their votes at the last minute, leading to the amendment’s defeat. In a subsequent vote the next week, the amendment was approved, although the overriding legislation was rejected on the House floor.
Ryan changed House policy after these attempts at ensuring LGBTQ non-discrimination in the workplace to preclude non-germane amendments on the floor. Although the policy change wasn’t explicitly directed at Maloney’s amendments, it was seen as an attempt to bar any more from coming to the House floor.
Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a fellow Wisconsite who’s seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate this year, had a measured approach in a statement evaluating Ryan’s tenure as speaker.
“Before I was elected to the Senate I served with Paul Ryan in the House and have spent many years working with him on behalf of the people of Wisconsin,” Baldwin said. “We know each other well and while we have different views on policy, I consider him a friend and have a lot of respect for him as a person and a public servant. This was a difficult decision to make, and I wish Paul and his family all the best in the future.”
Looking at Ryan’s tenure in the U.S. House as a whole, one act that might be considered pro-gay stands out: Being one of 35 Republicans to vote in 2007 in favor of a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (However, Ryan also voted in favor of a motion to recommit that would have killed the legislation.)
Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, pointed to Ryan’s vote in favor of ENDA as evidence the Wisconsin Republican supported the LGBTQ rights goals of the organization.
“The door was always open to Log Cabin Republicans at Paul Ryan’s office — one of my first meetings five years ago shortly after becoming the head of LCR National was a meeting with the man himself to discuss LGBTQ non-discrimination strategy in Congress,” Angelo said. “As someone who voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act the last time it was before the House of Representatives, Speaker Ryan was always sympathetic to the struggles of LGBTQ Americans.”
But Ryan’s vote on ENDA was an exception. Early in his tenure, Ryan voted in 2006 in favor of a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide and precluded the U.S. Supreme Court from ruling in favor of marriage equality. In the early years of the Obama administration when Democrats controlled Congress and were advancing pro-LGBTQ bills, Ryan also voted against hate crimes protection legislation and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, gave Ryan a thumbs-down when asked to evaluate the totality of the Wisconsin Republican’s record on LGBTQ rights.
“At almost every turn, Paul Ryan has opposed fairness and equality for LGBTQ people and their families,” Stacy said. “From voting to ban marriage equality in every state to voting against the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, Ryan has stood on the wrong side of history far too many times. Ryan could have used his speakership to move his caucus to reflect the views of the vast majority of Americans who are committed to advancing equality for every American — including LGBTQ people. He didn’t.”
With Ryan heading for the exit, the search will be underway soon for another Republican to take his place as head of the caucus regardless of whether or not his party retains control of Congress after the mid-term elections.
The most obvious choice would be House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), although Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) has been mentioned as a possible replacement. Neither has been favorable to LGBTQ rights, although the latter has a particularly anti-LGBTQ record and has had backing from anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council— in addition to having addressed a group with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
At a time when LGBTQ rights face continued threats in the name of “religious freedom” Angelo said the next speaker should be able to navigate between the two ideas.
“We are at a moment in history where it would behoove people of all political persuasions to be open to a speaker seeking to strike a balance between religious freedom and LGBTQ equality,” Angelo said.
Image is Washington Blade photo by Michael Key