Paul Ryan Loses Dust-Up with House Chaplain

Speaker Paul Ryan has so bungled an attempt to replace the House Chaplain that he has given up on the undertaking altogether. Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Jesuit priest who has served in the position since May 2011, resigned on April 16, after having been requested to do so two days earlier by Jonathan Burks, chief of staff to the Speaker. For 10 days there was no controversy, since it was not yet known that the resignation was involuntary, but the Catholic Members got their dander up once that became known, especially after Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), an ordained Southern Baptist minister selected by Ryan to a serve on a committee charged with finding a replacement, stated that the next Chaplain should be someone with “adult children…because what’s needed in the body here is people who can sit down with different members, male, female, Democrat, Republican, and just talk about what it is kind of to be up here”; Rep. Peter King (R-NY), a Catholic and no shrinking violet, scolded Walker at a private conference meeting on Friday, April 27; Walker was out of the picture soon thereafter: it was announced by his office on Monday, April 30, that he was withdrawing from the committee; a spokesman for Ryan, however, in all seriousness maintained that no one had been named to the committee, since the Speaker was awaiting the selections of its Democrats by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and insisted that Walker was not under consideration.

The exit of the former future search-committee member did not quell the controversy. Conroy (if he can be believed) confirmed the suspicion of anti-Catholic prejudice by revealing that Burks had told him that “maybe it’s time” to have a Chaplain who isn’t Catholic, a charge which Burks denied; similarly, a spokesman for Ryan said that Pelosi had been consulted on the dismissal and did not object, while a spokesman for Pelosi said that she made her disagreement with the dismissal known. (As a side note: if those four contradictory statements were repeated under oath by Conroy, Burks, Ryan, and Pelosi, two of the four would have to be charged with perjury: either the Chaplain of the House or the chief of staff to the Speaker, in the one instance, and either the Speaker or the Minority Leader, in the other.) By Thursday, May 3, Conroy sent Ryan a letter withdrawing his resignation, which was due to become effective May 24, and requesting to continue “to the end of my current two-year term, and beyond, unless my services are officially terminated (however that is properly done) or I am not reelected to the position by the membership of the House”; Ryan immediately caved, and then swore him in anew on Tuesday, May 8, since the resignation had been accepted and read into the record.

It is hard to get at the truth of whether Fr. Conroy should be replaced. Rumors that he had been derelict after the attack on the Republican baseball team the previous June were contradicted by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), likewise a Catholic, the doctor who saved the life of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) by applying a tourniquet to his leg. Ryan said that he had acted “to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves,” because some Members had informed him that their “pastoral needs” were not being met. Being a Catholic himself had not insulated him from criticism; Peter King was not satisfied with his explanation, and told reporters after the Friday conference: “To be the first House Chaplain to be removed in the history of Congress, in the middle of a term, raises serious questions. I think we deserve more of an explanation of why.” It is ironic that Conroy’s experience counseling high school and college students was touted at the time of his original selection, as well as his ability to work with people of different faiths (Georgetown University, where he had served two separate stints as chaplain, being indeed a Catholic-in-name-only institution). Since we can assume that Ryan, although seemingly unable to present any evidence for the complaints, is nevertheless not lying about them, apparently there are Members, perhaps not all Republicans, who were willing to complain to him privately about what they perceived as shortcomings of the incumbent, but were not willing to repeat the criticisms publicly to back up the Speaker once he came under fire.

It is conceivable that the critics of Fr. Conroy were all Protestants themselves, and that therefore their coming forward would have served no purpose, but only exacerbated the situation; in that case, however, one would have expected the Speaker—unless it would be a mistake to attribute even minimal awareness to him—to have noticed that all of those privately expressing disapproval of the priest were non-Catholics. The other Members named, or about to be named, to the search committee by Ryan were Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), another former pastor, who is an Evangelical, and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), an Air Force Reserve chaplain who is a Southern Baptist. Walker, who will turn 49 later this month, has three children, two of whom appear to be young adults, a circumstance which would seem to explain why he believes that the Chaplain should be able to relate to Members with adult children; since he has only been a Congressman since 2015, he might still be adjusting to the constant shuttling between the capital and the home district. He seems to have decided views, as a pastor himself, as to how the incumbent of the chaplaincy should be performing his duties, and clearly believes that Fr. Conroy lacked the life experience to counsel most Members of Congress; that does not mean that he was one of the Members who complained to the Speaker about the inadequacy of Fr. Conroy, but it would make sense if he was one of the instigators, because Ryan then would have been treating his opinion as expert criticism. But there are many ways to skin a cat, and it is possible for the pastoral talents of a given individual to be judged more harshly by a fellow practitioner than by a layperson.

To be honest, I didn’t realize that there are U.S. Representatives who feel that they are badly in need of pastoral care, through the week, on our dime. Given the circumstance that most Members return to their home states every weekend while Congress is in session, not to mention the multiplicity of denominations to which Members belong, it would be more sensible for them to seek the guidance of pastors in their home districts or states; then every Member could have the pastor of his or her choosing.

Some good might yet come from the sorry spectacle. The House GOP could regain some of the credibility, which it lost with the base after the $1.3 trillion omnibus, if it took action to cut its own bloated budget. According to a CRS Report from May 2011, the Chaplain of the House at that time was earning $172,500 (the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, by contrast, is salaried at Level IV of the Executive Schedule, the basic pay of which was $164,200 as of January 2018); the total hit to the taxpayer is greater, however, since there are office expenses as well. Since Fr. Conroy is a Jesuit, and Jesuits, unlike diocesan priests, take a vow of poverty, the lion’s share of his gargantuan salary presumably is getting turned over to his order, but his loss for that reason is not the taxpayer’s gain.

The Republic would survive if the House abolished the position of Chaplain. But tradition argues in favor of retaining it in some form. The House has had a Chaplain since May 1789 (except for the three Congresses preceding the outbreak of the Civil War), although the post is not required by the Constitution (the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, in fact came to believe that it violates the Establishment Clause), only by the Rules of the House, which can easily be changed. Since the House Chaplain is subject to re-election every two years, an opportunity to make a fundamental change, not just a change in personnel, is regularly given.

Conservatives respect tradition, but also abhor government waste. Those conservative principles can be reconciled in the present case if the House ceases to elect a permanent Chaplain with a high salary, and ceases to appropriate office expenses altogether, and begins to pay the person delivering the invocation per diem (or, one might say, per precationem). I would suggest paying $20 a pop, a pure honorarium; the service could be performed either by a local cleric, or by a visiting one; the Clerk of the House, or the Chief Administrative Officer (both Officers of the House, currently elected, along with the Sergeant at Arms and the Chaplain, by passage of an omnibus resolution at the outset of a new Congress), could be in charge of the roster; if on a certain day no cleric was present, a Member could volunteer to give the invocation, but would not be compensated. In this fashion, the bill for the opening prayer sent to the taxpayer would virtually never exceed $100 per week, and would remain well south of $5,000 for the year. I’d like to see the next Republican Speaker make this reform immediately; Fr. Conroy, if in fact no serious reproach can be made against him, could be asked to continue to serve under the new compensation scheme, unless he be thought to have misrepresented the conversation with Burks, or unless it be thought better to start with someone new. The privilege of giving the invocation is an activity which might be performed by a retired cleric (Fr. Conroy is 67 years old, and so could retire), or by a cleric working in the area, and in either case the office could continue to be filled for a term of two years by election, but the performance of the function does not require the office itself to remain in existence.

Paul Ryan has succeeded in making a caricature of himself, having his aide tell the priest to resign and then meekly accepting it when the guy unresigned. If I were publishing a dictionary, I’d put a mug shot of Paul Ryan in the margin next to “feckless.” You have to wonder whether a Speaker who wasn’t a complete Milquetoast would have simply said “no deal” when Mitch and Chuck sent over the latest omnibus last March. His sorry attempt to get rid of the Chaplain thus seems to confirm that with a Speaker other than Ryan House Republicans could be getting a lot more of their agenda passed, and underscores the need for Republicans to announce and hold an election for his successor as soon as possible.

Once he returns to Janesville Ryan will be at loose ends, especially since he’s not allowed to lobby for a year. His mismanagement of the House perhaps could be parlayed into a business offering two-car funerals on one-way streets. He will certainly have more time to read; accordingly, I close with a suggestion for his reading list, by means of a snapshot from Dec. 2015: