Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a few weeks short of his 39th birthday, can hardly believe he’s now been in Congress for 10 years. Even more unbelievable to Ryan is what happened to congressional Republicans’ sense of spending discipline during those 10 years. Ryan took office in 1999, at the tail end of the Clinton Administration and of Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker of the House.
That was when the federal government was running budget surpluses — thanks to spending discipline enforced by Capitol Hill Republicans and taken credit for by Clinton — and when it was projected that surpluses would total $5.6 trillion over the decade that was to come.
Who would have thought that federal spending would so soon spiral completely out of control — with Republicans in control both on Capitol Hill and in the White House?
In an interview with HUMAN EVENTS, Ryan lamented an announcement by President-elect Barack Obama earlier the same day of his determination to enact a massive, Keynsian stimulus package that could top $1 trillion — virtually ensuring a second consecutive year in which the federal budget deficit would top that same amount.
“By the time our kids are our age, the government will be double in size,” Ryan said. “The tax burden will be double. That’s just to pay for the status quo. That doesn’t consider any new programs of the federal government. We’ll be going from 18 percent of the GDP in taxes to 30 percent. That’s unsustainable. You can’t have a prosperous society at that rate. The American ideal will die.”
Ryan has made it a virtual one-man mission to call attention to the crushing nature of the burdens taxpayers will face over the next several decades if federal spending — particularly in the area of entitlements — is not brought under control. Unfunded obligations for Social Security, Medicaid and other entitlements now total $56 trillion, dwarfing the entire national debt, which stands at $10.8 trillion.
Through his Roadmap for America’s Future (www.americanroadmap.org), Ryan urges a variety of measures to change the nation’s fiscal course, including:
— Means testing for entitlement programs and a much more aggressive option for private accounts as an alternative to Social Security. Medicare would essentially transition from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan.
— Mandatory caps to hold spending at approximately 18 percent of GDP, with Gramm-Rudman-like automatic across-the-board cuts if Congress exceeds the cap.
— Tax reform, including the option of a very simple, two-tier system of tax rates much like that proposed during last year’s presidential campaign by Fred Thompson — and the elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax and the Corporate Tax.
— Tax credits to empower individuals to buy their own health care, rather than promoting reliance on employers or on the government.
Ryan recognizes that the political climate in Washington today will not allow the passage of a plan like his, but he is determined to see it happen within the next 10 years.
“If it doesn’t, we’ll surpass Europe as a socialist welfare state, and that’s not what people want in my opinion,” Ryan said. “What we have to do is stop it from happening. It’s all about addressing these challenges before these tipping points are reached.”
Ryan is not proposing draconian spending cuts. His primary emphasis is spending and taxation as a percentage of GDP, which has generally been right around 18 percent for many years regardless of changes in marginal tax rates. Ryan’s plan seeks to keep spending at that level, but he fears the coming explosion entitlement spending will drive the figure dramatically higher.
“The tipping points are how many people are consumers of the government,” Ryan said. “The number of consumers of the government is going to increase dramatically, and the number of people paying for it is not. We have about 10 years to turn it around, or at least reform these programs and put them on a sustainable path so we can keep our freedom and prosperity.”
Ryan describes the current political atmosphere for such reforms as next to impossible, but, in a way, the Republicans’ loss of its congressional majority makes it easier for him to make his case. That’s because he no longer faces one of his most troubling obstacles — resistance from his own leadership.
“You no longer have the leadership stopping us from doing these things,” Ryan said. “Now we have nothing to fight over. Now we have a better chance, here in the wilderness, to redefine ourselves in a clear way. People like me can ignore those forces in our party who are too thin-skinned when it comes to actually cutting spending.”
Ryan recalls his attempts throughout the years to merely force a vote in the House on such spending discipline measures. It wasn’t until the 109th Congress — the last with a Republican majority — that Ryan and Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas (the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee) managed to even do that much. The results were not promising.
“We clawed, kicked and screamed to get our vote on the floor,” Ryan said. “It put hard statutory caps on discretionary spending and a cap on entitlements. We got less than 100 votes. That’s what happened to our party.”
And where was the Bush Administration on all this? Where they the force behind the big spending, or merely a passive observer choosing to spend its political capital elsewhere?
“They didn’t help and they didn’t hurt,” Ryan said.
At present, Ryan believes a massive public education campaign is needed to get the public on board with his spending-discipline agenda. He is using print, broadcast and web interviews and trying to promote interest in the Roadmap website. In the meantime, his biggest concern is that the new stimulus spending on the way will only perpetuate a vicious cycle.
“I’m mostly worried that they’re going to increase social welfare programs that will never go back down,” Ryan said. “The biggest concern of a massive Keynsian stimulus, which the evidence shows does not work, by the way, is that it virtually guarantees tax increases in the future.”
And that means more future “stimulus” to combat the economic stagnation that is sure to result. Can Ryan, relegated to the minority and scrounging for support, bring about changes that will reverse that cycle fast enough?
“I’m not saying my roadmap is the only way to achieve it, but the fork in the road is quickly approaching,” Ryan said. “Americans need to know and understand that we need to pick a path pretty soon.”