Since his appointment as Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan has seen the media heap an abundance of praise and hope on him as the policy wonk who will unite Republicans, shake up the House and get the Congress back to passing sound policy. There is little in Ryan’s record, however, that validates such optimism: throughout his tenure in Congress, he has been guided by ideology, not pragmatic policy-making.
Clever, pragmatic, courageous. Someone who can get the House moving again. In the wake of his election as Speaker, many in the media have bought into the carefully-doctored reputation Paul Ryan has created for himself – that of the pragmatic politician focused on doing what is right for the country.
Some of this shine has already come off: Ryan has indicated that ensuring party unity, not governing, is his first priority: he has reintroduced the Hastert rule and announced he will not take up immigration legislation. Both moves could have been inspired by political expedience or ideological puritanism, but certainly not by a concern for sound policy-making.
Moreover, despite his long tenure and elevated positions in the Congress, passing policy into law, let alone sensible policy, is an activity Ryan has rarely engaged in.
Hence, his image as a policy wonk requires re-examination and it is valid to ask the question: is he a man of policy or of ideology?
What’s in a budget
Like most Republicans these days, proponent will argue, Ryan is a staunch fiscal conservative. The praise has usually come from his work in areas where he has actually been in the lead for many years: fiscal policy. After all, before acceding to the Speakership the 45-year old was chairman of the Ways and Means committee and the House Budget committee for a combined 4.5 years.
What is more, in 2013, he struck a rare bipartisan government-funding deal with Democratic Senator Patty Murray. Will this deal be the model for Ryan’s speakership?
Perhaps. However, if so, it will not be an example of a pragmatic policy maker riding to the country’s fiscal rescue. Rather, the 2013 deal is an example par excellence of the kind of ideological gridlock Ryan has helped create: rather than addressing the two big fiscal challenges—tax and entitlement reform—the deal gave both parties an ideological victory: Ryan’s Republicans avoided any tax increases and Democrats prevented any changes to social entitlement programs.
Moreover, as GOP negotiator, Ryan was under extreme pressure to strike a deal to avoid another government shutdown ahead of the 2014 elections. With his predecessor, Boehner, having relieved him of any immediate pressure to strike a similar deal ahead of the Presidential election, a better indication of Ryan’s leanings is offered by the range of budgets he has produced–none of which have ever become law.
While the budgets claim to be guided by the concern for growing debt placed on future generations, this is not backed up by the actual proposals themselves. For one, none of the policy reforms were independently tested for fiscal impact, the way the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) does for the President’s budget.
Moreover, the proposed solutions including voluntary privatization of Social Security, turning Medicare into a voucher program, and deep cuts in education spending are ideologically driven: they are likely to be inefficient and disruptive policies. The rest of the budget confirms its real aim—not to fend off ‘debtocalypse’, but to fundamentally change the federal government’s role in society:
The Ryan budget proposes sweeping tax reform which would reduce the number of tax brackets to two, with tax rates at 10 and 25%. This is likely to cost hundreds of billions in revenues each year—a fact systematically overlooked in the budgets.
Even clearer clues are provided by the stated aims of the budget:
The first of these is to balance the budget in 10 years. This will certainly please conservative ideologues, but is unnecessary to achieve debt-ratio stabilization, which can be achieved even with deficits.
The second is described as a ‘debt-free future’, which would see debt fall to zero by 2050. Such an outcome is unlikely to be optimal: governments, in order to finance worthwhile investments, need to take on some level of debt. A debt-free goal is likely to be harmful economically, to say nothing of the cuts needed to achieve it.
It is hence not merely Ryan’s means that are ideological; on fiscal policy, it is his ends as well.
Many will argue that at least Ryan tried; that no feasible alternatives were available that would have allowed him to prove his pragmatism. This, however is not true. In 2010, the Bowles-Simpson commission produced a report that provided a pragmatic way to tackle the country’s long-run budgetary challenges. The commission’s proposals did not get the required number of votes from its own members to become law, however.
Paul Ryan was a member of the commission and one of its most influential Republican voices. In the final vote, a majority of Republicans voted in favor. Ryan, however, did not, playing a pivotal role not only in torpedoing the deal, but also the chances of reviving a similar agreement in the future. The reason was an ideological attachment to the Grover Norquist agenda.
Nothing to see here
Looking at his substantive stances, it is not surprising that Ryan’s legislative achievements are virtually non-existent. During his entire 16-year tenure in Congress, only two bills he co-sponsored have made it past the President’s desk: one to rename a post office in his district, another to change a tax on arrows.
All-in-all this is hardly an impressive record for a Speaker, or for a policy wonk for that matter.
Those who praise Ryan as a pragmatic politician might want to wait and see whether he will indeed deliver on their hopes, or whether he will try to steer the body on ideological grounds. Judging from his past, the latter is the more likely outcome.