The Atlantic

The End of the Strong Speaker

Paul Ryan’s departure shows how far Congress has come from the heyday of House leaders who tightly controlled their chamber.
Source: Yuri Gripas / Reuters

When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he would step down from his position and not run for reelection, the news didn’t come as that much of a surprise. Of course, it is a big deal to learn that the most powerful person in Congress is relinquishing their authority. But it is not the first time this has happened.

The truth is that being speaker is not what it used to be. A position that once commanded immense gravitas in the days of Democrat Sam Rayburn, the Texan who ruled the roost during most of the years between 1940 and his death in 1961 (save for the two sessions in 1947 and 1953 when Republicans retook control of Congress), now makes the person holding the job a perpetual target. The puzzle with Congress’s current situation is that in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, congressional reformers in the 1970s had changed the rules and norms of the House so as to centralize power under the speaker with the goal of replacing the fragmented

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