The Lamentable Legacy of Paul Ryan: Part I

After Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan announced his intent to retire from Congress this past April, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement intended to praise Mr. Ryan, saying in part, “Paul’s speakership has yielded one signature accomplishment after another for his conference, his constituents in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District, and the American people [my emphasis].”

While one can agree or dispute Sen. McConnell’s characterization of Mr. Ryan’s tenure as one of “accomplishment,” it seems to me that the order in which he placed Mr. Ryan’s constituencies was entirely accurate — and (unwittingly) more indictment than tribute.

By all accounts, Mr. Ryan is an upbeat, pleasant man of probity.  His intelligence and grasp of policy detail are legendary.  Even those that vigorously disagree with him on substantive issues like and praise him personally.  Yet, it is hard, as Mr. Ryan’s tenure draws to a close, not to characterize his record as, at best, one of accommodation and enablement, and at worst, one of hypocrisy and timidity.

Any review of Mr. Ryan’s record demonstrates that the issue of greatest concern to him throughout his career has been the ever-growing federal debt.  An internet search yields such a number of the Speaker’s declarations on the issue that if all were recorded here, WordPress would need another couple of servers to hold them.  A brief sampling:

  • In March of 2010:

“This debt crisis coming to our country. The wall and tidal wave of debt that is befalling our nation. Medicare and Social Security go bankrupt within ten years, we have a debt that is looming so high that in the last year of President Obama’s budget just the interest payments on our debt is $916 billion dollars.”

  • And again, urging a need for fiscal restraint in March, 2013:

“Our debt is already bigger than our economy.”

These are understandable sentiments; a number of thoughtful commentators have suggested that our burgeoning debt may be not only our most important domestic policy issue but also our most dangerous foreign policy challenge.  However, anyone looking at the dates of these and his like comments will note that they all were made while Barack Obama was in the White House.

  • In 2001, Mr. Ryan voted for President Bush’s tax cuts [to be fair, at the time of the vote, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was projecting a significant federal budget surplus into the future].
  • In the summer of 2003, he voted for President Bush’s second round of tax cuts. If truly a deficit hawk, he accommodated to his party’s political interests.
  • In the early winter of 2003, he voted for Medicare Part D. If truly a deficit hawk, he accommodated to his party’s political interests.
  • According to news accounts, he voted at least five times to raise the federal debt ceiling during the Bush presidency. Good policy, but I’ve seen no indication that he sounded any alarm in those years — as contrasted with the struggles on this issue during the Obama presidency.

If I understand the reporting correctly, the CBO concluded in 2012 that the Bush Tax Cuts and Medicare Part D were the cause of about 30% of the then-current national debt.  No matter how one feels about the substance of these measures, it was apparent by the time that President Trump took office that the Bush laws had significantly added to the deficits that Mr. Ryan never tired of railing about.  Mr. Ryan nevertheless ushered through the House both a tax cut and a budget deal – which USA Today reported that he called the “biggest accomplishments” of his Speakership — that the CBO estimated in April would add $1.6 trillion to the deficit during the next decade … and more if the individual tax cuts (set to expire in 2026) are extended.  This estimate could not have come as a surprise; when Trump tax plan details surfaced in the spring of 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that “not one respondent” in a University of Chicago poll of leading academic economists thought that the plan would pay for itself.

In the final analysis, the Speaker was more interested in obtaining perceived short term political gain for the members of his House Republican caucus than in America’s long term fiscal stability.  The measures he championed placed the entitlements that millions of Americans need and will need on even shakier ground than they were before.  He instead chose to accommodate his members.  A fact is a fact.

It’s difficult not to conclude that the dichotomy between Rep. Ryan’s words and actions is more evidence of political careerism and opportunism than fervently-held policy beliefs.  Even so, I am less troubled by his inconsistency on fiscal issues than by his failure of moral Constitutional leadership.  However, recognizing that this is a blog rather than an endless Word document, it’s time to call a halt.  More in Part II …

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