Into the Budget Breach
By Paul M. Krawzak
After years of disciplined preparation, Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, is about to confront the challenge he’s been waiting for since his days as a Capitol Hill intern. He’s getting ready to take the helm of the House Budget Committee, moving up from ranking Republican as a result of the GOP sweep in the midterm elections.
So if the Budget Committee will be the center, Ryan will be at the center of the center — the “center of the storm,” in the words of former Rep. Bill Frenzel. “My guess is, in the first six months, he’s going to be the single most important member of Congress, the one we see most often, the one who will be spreading the policies on the board, trying to move programs, trying to convince people to move this way or that,” says Frenzel, a Minnesota Republican who is now a budget expert at the Brookings Institution.
Ryan, 40, saw his prominence increase with the election of Barack Obama and the advance of his agenda. He received national attention jousting with the president at a GOP meeting in Baltimore last January. “Obama wasn’t the only winner,” wrote Matthew Continettiin The Weekly Standard. “Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the young, pleasant, wonky member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees, saw his stock rise today, as well. Obama and Ryan engaged in a detailed, serious, good-faith debate over future spending and the Wisconsin congressman’s Roadmap for America’s Future. The result was something I never thought I’d see: compelling daytime television.”
Ryan has become not only the House Republicans’ resident expert on the budget, not only an articulate advocate who can translate arcane budgetary concepts into everyday language, but also a veritable GOP think tank and source of proposals to cut spending; restructure entitlement programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security; revamp the tax system; and overhaul the budget process. That’s the plan he calls the “Roadmap for America’s Future.”
He said in an interview that he’ll use the Family Budget Protection Act, a 2007 bill introduced by Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, as the basis for his proposals. “That’s a huge bill on budget process reforms, and I’m going to break that thing down into pieces,” he said.
But he’s frank in conceding that he doesn’t know how much support he’ll get, even from Republican House leadership, which did not include much of Ryan’s plans in its “Pledge to America,” a pre-election manifesto that spelled out the House GOP’s plans to roll back spending, reject tax hikes and repeal the health care overhaul.
When asked whether Republican leaders and members will support his ideas, Ryan’s answer is, for a politician, spare and direct. “You know, I don’t know,” he said. But he sees reason for optimism among the incoming Republican freshmen, many of whom will be in tune with his desire to scale back government.
“The variable is we’ve got 90 some people coming up here who are new, and it’s going to be a very different conference than what we’ve had in the past,” he said. “If you had asked me if I could move these ideas with the 109th or 110th or 111th Congress, I’d say that’s pretty tough to do. But what the viability of these ideas looks like in the 112th is a different thing altogether. And I’m not sure exactly what it is.
“We’ve got to get serious on entitlement reform, because if we don’t fix this problem it’s going to tackle us,” he said. “And so I’m going to do everything I can to get this dialogue going as far as possible. And where that ends, I just don’t know.”
So Ryan will proceed at a measured pace, hoping perhaps for some White House support. “I would love to see if we can get a few steps in the direction of entitlement reform with the current White House. I’m not sure that’s going to happen . . . It’s up to them.
“I’m hopeful that the president will say, ‘I agree with you Republicans on A, B and C, so let’s work on those things. But on X, Y and Z, we’re just not going to agree.’ And on those issues, which are probably going to be some of the big issues of the day, like health care, it’s our obligation to show the country how we would do things differently,” Ryan said.
“At the end of the day, I think I have an obligation to help give the country a choice, an alternative to the current philosophy of government.”
“I can’t think of anyone that’s better suited and has more promise to help the Congress and our country deal with this very tough issue,” said Charles W. Stenholm, a former Democratic congressman from Texas. “At some point in time, we’re going to have to quit writing the stories that it can’t be done, there’s no political will, there’s nobody going to support that. Someday we’re going to have to fool the folks” and make the needed changes.
Ryan came to Washington as an intern for GOP Sen. Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, and he stayed on to work for Jack F. Kemp, Bill Bennett and Sen. Sam Brownback, all of whom helped him get elected to the House in 1998 at the age of 28. The youngest congressman ever sent to Washington from Wisconsin, he campaigned on cutting the budget and taxes, and has never quit.
Sharp, quick, witty and telegenic, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor and gets along easily with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He does not force-feed colleagues with budget arcana, although he has been consumed by it since he was a young adult, something he joked about once on the House floor. “This is kind of weird,” he said, “ but I’ve been reading federal budgets since I was 22 years old. I know that’s kind of sick.”
“Ryan stands out as someone who has gone beyond rhetoric and put concrete proposals on the table,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, a budget expert at the Brookings Institution and former associate director at President Bill Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget. “What so many of us are fed up about,” Sawhill said, “is that there’s all this rhetoric out there about the need to be fiscally responsible and to cut spending and reduce the size of government. And then when you ask people for specifics, they have none.”
Frenzel calls Ryan “the single most important intellectual asset that the Republicans in either house have in budget policy matters” and describes his road map as “a way to try to restore fiscal sobriety to a system marked by fiscal inebriation over the years.”
NO LONGER A MAVERICK
But respect does not equal support. Democrat Larry LaRocco, a former Idaho congressman, says Ryan “could help put the country on a sound fiscal footing. But he needs to get buy-in from some Democrats.”
As Budget chairman, it will be Ryan’s task to pass a budget resolution out of the committee that reflects Republican priorities and can win approval in the full House. In addition, he’ll be presiding over committee hearings that will give him the opportunity to highlight issues he thinks are important.
“I hope to make a big dent in spending that can pass into law,” he said last week. Ryan is committed to the House Republican agenda of rolling back discretionary spending to where it was in fiscal 2008 before the financial crisis, which he said would save almost $100 billion in the first year. If you look at fiscal 2008 spending, he said, “that’s a pretty good guide of where we’re headed.”
He has not found a lot of support from within his party, no doubt because some of his proposals for Social Security (add a personal investment option) and Medicare (make it a voucher-based program) have been the basis for Democratic attack ads in past years. Only 13 House Republicans signed on as cosponsors, and the road map was left out of the Pledge to America.
Conda thinks the incoming class will make a difference. “Paul will have a great following among the new members coming in, both in the House and in the Senate, because a lot of them viewed him as their lodestar on fiscal, budget and tax issues,” Conda said. He added that Ryan’s support among the rank and file could even create pressure on GOP leaders, such as likely Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and current minority whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, to defer to him on budget issues “because of his credibility and reach into the new members coming in.”
WHAT COMES NEXT
Ryan is confident that the public is ready to accept changes in government spending and entitlement programs, even if they cause pain. In his book “Young Guns,” which he cowrote with Cantor and Chief Deputy Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, Ryan writes: “The public is way ahead of the political class. They get that things are broken.”
He bases the conviction partly on his experience with his own constituents in a politically moderate, evenly split district that voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Obama in 2008.
“So it’s either go now and have a plan for prosperity where we gradually phase in these changes — where we do it on our own terms — or delay and impose European-like austerity cuts. That’s really the choice in front of us. And if and when confronted with that choice, I think people totally understand the need to go soon vs. delaying and having more painful cuts later.”
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