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.
It’s not your ordinary Budget Committee, though. It’s the Budget Committee amid blaring alarms and dire prophecies about a national debt that simply can’t continue. It’s a committee with the potential to be a field of battle only partly about numbers and more about “philosophy of government,” as Ryan says — about “what kind of country you want to have in the 21st century.”
That a high-profile Democrat such as Maryland’s Rep. Chris Van Hollen wants to be the top Democrat on the committee attests to its importance. It’s “a central front in this national conversation abouthow to accelerate job creation and economic growth,” he wrote in a
letter to colleagues, the arena for “a debate about who we are and the future direction of our country.”
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 hails from Janesville, in southern Wisconsin. Within a 90-mile radius are the birthplaces of Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, who attended the same high school as Ryan; Sen. Wayne Morse, Oregon’s Democratic maverick; and Robert La Follette, founder of America’s Progressive Party at the start of the 20th century. Widening the circle another 10 miles takes in the birthplace of Ronald Reagan: Tampico, Ill.
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.”
Cesar Conda, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who has known Ryan for 20 years and introduced him to Kemp, said Ryan has taken on the challenge of the budget because he sees deficits, debt and an oversized government as threatening the American dream. Ryan, Conda says, is “a conviction guy.”
HERO or FLIMFLAM MAN?
Like many conservatives, Ryan looks to Kemp as a model, inspiration and, in Ryan’s case, a personal mentor. Kemp, who died last year, lived to see Ryan become a hero on the right as well.
Edwin Feulner, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, views Ryan as a successor to Kemp, who made his mark as a champion of pro-growth economic policies and the author of the 1981 Kemp-Roth income tax cuts during the Reagan administration.
“He’s painting with bold colors what the fundamental alternatives really should be and one very serious way of looking at them,” Feulner says. “Ryan, I think, is going about it in a very sensible way. He’s got something out there. He admits this may not be the final way it’s going to appear. But let’s start talking.”
Some liberals have gone after Ryan with a vengeance.
In an Aug. 5 column in The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman called Ryan a “flimflam man” and his plan a “fraud.” Arguing that Ryan’s road map would not cut the deficit, Krugman said his spending cuts were unrealistic and his restructuring of the tax system would disproportionately benefit the rich.
Ryan responded to Krugman, saying what he failed to understand was that “our looming debt crisis is driven by the explosive growth of government spending, not from a lack of tax revenue.”
Some budget experts say Ryan’s more controversial proposals will be radioactive.
Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously served as chief of staff for House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey of Wisconsin, said that once Ryan’s ideas gain wider circulation, they may create a threat to his agenda. Noting that Republican candidates received a majority of votes by Americans over 65 in the midterm elections, he said that when seniors find out what Ryan wants to do with Social Security and Medicare, they won’t be happy.
“I would say that if Paul Ryan’s proposal becomes more than a think piece, and . . . is spelled out in greater detail so that senior citizens understand what he’s saying . . . [Republicanscan] kiss that 58 percent goodbye and expect to get something closer to 28 percent in the next election,” Lilly said during a forum sponsored by CQ Roll Call. “Those cuts are going to be viewed as very unfair and unduly harsh by, I think, a huge proportion of Americans, not just senior citizens.”
Many others count at least some of his ideas as too radical to win approval, including former comptroller general David Walker, who said that while Ryan’s road map has “intellectual merit,” it is “not politically feasible.”
But even those who disagree with Ryan typically applaud his willingness to show his cards.
“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.”
One of Ryan’s most basic challenges will be to make the transition from a ranking member to chairman. “That’s going to put him in a very different position,” Sawhill said. “He’ll need to try to knit together his caucus or at least some segment of it to make any headway. He can no longer just be the maverick out there who has some smart ideas. He’s going to have to build some support for his ideas.”
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
Walker, one of the most authoritative voices warning of looming fiscal disaster, observes that Republicans “could pass a lot of things in the House that can’t make it through the Senate and yet say that they’re trying to do what they can.”
Walker bemoans the shrinkage of what he calls “the sensible center,” which he defines as moderate politicians in both parties. “The Blue Dogs took it on the chin. Moderate Republicans are almost extinct. And yet,in reality, where the solutions are, are in the middle,” he said.
G. William Hoagland, a budget expert and former top aide to Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, expresses guarded optimism that Congress and the president will take the necessary steps to address the fiscal challenge, which he says need to include spending cuts, a restructuring of the tax code and some form of consumption tax.
“I think it can be done,” he said during a CQ Roll Call forum. “I disagree with the conventional wisdom that we are in for two years of stalemate . . . I guess I’m still naïve enough [that] I want to be optimistic about the future.”
Others expect gridlock over the next two years. “There’s an awful lot of people with their heads in the sand who don’t understand the risks we are taking as a country by not addressing the fiscal question,” Sawhill said. They don’t recognize “that it isn’t going to happen until there is some willingness to compromise between the parties.”
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.
“They’re ready for this,” Ryan said. “They understand it. They’re ready to hear the truth. And the argument I keep making is if we go soon” with major changes to entitlement programs, “we can protect people who are in or near retirement. We don’t have to pull the rug from underneath them.
“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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