Speaker Ryan passes the buck on Voting Rights Act restoration

House Speaker Paul Ryan told members of the Congressional Black Caucus today that, while he personally supports the bipartisan legislation pending in the House that would restore the sections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013, he won’t bring that legislation up for a vote.

From the Hill:

Paul Ryan, via Mel Brown / Shutterstock.com

Paul Ryan, via Mel Brown / Shutterstock.com

“He said it right in front of everybody — he said he supports the [Jim] Sensenbrenner bill,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said after Ryan met with the group on Capitol Hill.

“So somebody was saying, ‘Well, why don’t you go tell your committee chair to do it?’ ” Cleaver added. “And he said, … ‘Look, I can’t do that.’ ”

Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a former chairman of the Judiciary panel, has sponsored bipartisan legislation to update the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in response to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a central provision of the 1965 law.

But Sensenbrenner’s proposal does not have the backing of the current Judiciary chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who maintains the Supreme Court left ample protections in the VRA, thereby making congressional action unnecessary.

Ryan told the CBC Wednesday that any voting rights legislation must move by that bottom-up process, Cleaver said.

“He said, ‘I told my own conference I’m not going to do it, so I’m not going to come up here and tell you anything differently. … I want it to be the product of the committee,’ ” Cleaver said.

2016 will mark the first presidential election since the Supreme Court took away federal preclearance requirements from states and localities with histories of racial discrimination in voting laws. 16 states have passed voting restrictions since the last presidential election — many of which were introduced less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling. Some of those restrictions are being challenged in court.

Those court challenges are largely based on mounting evidence that these laws really do have racially discriminatory effects, suggesting that the protections the Supreme Court left in place really aren’t enough to protect voting rights for low-income and minority voters. Representative Goodlatte can say he feels that the current protections are enough, but he’s simply wrong. If Speaker Ryan really thought so, he could move these additional protections through.

By refusing to do so and blaming a subordinate, all he’s done instead is pass the buck. Shame on him.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • The Speaker ever claiming he’s unable to do something or suggesting he’s “paralyzed” is severely downplaying the power of the office. He can bring anything up for a vote any time he wants, and deny anything a vote if he so chooses. The business of the House essentially operates entirely around what he wants to accomplish as Speaker. Paul Ryan has simply decided he wants to be feckless. Which is the whole point of the Hastert Rule, to give a weak Speaker a veneer of legitimacy over his inability to effectively lead his own party.

  • gratuitous

    This could also be called Ryan wanting to have his cake and eat it, too. When he’s talking to the CBC, he’s all in favor of voting rights, give him credit for his solid advocacy! But when he could take direct action to back up his words, he’s suddenly paralyzed because . . . well, he doesn’t even give a reason, just “I can’t do that.” I wonder if he thinks that’s a good enough explanation for the CBC?

  • Yeah, but there’s a difference. It drove Boehner to drink. Ryan likes it.

  • After the Boehner debacle, did anyone actually expect Ryan to do anything as Speaker? The teabaggers have him by the short hairs, and everyone knows it.

  • This is not passing the buck. This is intentionally keeping things skewed because there is a presidential election coming up. Republicans know all too well that the fewer people who vote, the greater chance they have of winning. Suppressing the vote by any means necessary is their best chance.

  • JaneE

    The GOP hates democracy. Especially when everyone no matter what race, sex, or religion has the right to vote.

  • slavdude

    Cruz, Ryan, Rubio…. Dammit, Gen-X, can’t we do better than that?

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