If Paul Ryan were to become president or vice president someday, or speaker of the House, he would still likely be remembered for the work with which his name is almost always linked: the House GOP’s alternative budget, officially known as “The Path To Prosperity,” but inevitably referred to in media shorthand as “The Ryan Budget” or “The Ryan Plan.”
It is a plan that has carried him to the nation’s front pages in the years since he introduced the first version in 2008 and indeed, it propelled him to being the Veep candidate with the most media coverage between March 16 and April 16, according to HighBeam research. He bested popular Sen. Marco Rubio, 27 percent to 23.5 percent, according to the analysis of media attention, released last week.
The Ryan Budget, unlike its predecessors, has special significance in 2012: This is a presidential election year and The Ryan Budget is sure to be targeted by Democrats as a repository of “gloom and doom” and, perhaps, embraced by Republican officeholders and candidates as a program they will enact if they maintain control of the House and win the Senate and presidency this fall.
If Ryan is named Veep, and if the federal budget is where the presidential election battle is to be joined, rivals will find Ryan to be true to his support of a trimmer federal household and unwavering in his drive toward a more prudently run national ledger. He has taken the heat—that was a Ryan “lookalike” pushing grandma off the cliff in 2011 TV ad—and he has felt how harsh political backlash can be. But, as he told Human Events a few days ago, the point is to change the “debt-laden welfare state.”
Ryan’s experiences in the hot budget kitchen of Washington could be just the ingredient that complements Mitt Romney’s business world background. Romney might know how to marshal private sector accountants; Ryan knows how to wrangle the herd of appropriating cats in Congress, and thus make Romney effective.
Even before Republicans took control of the House in 2010 and Ryan became chairman of the House Budget Committee, the Janesville, Wis., native and former congressional staffer was offering his own plans to deal with deficits and entitlements. As far back as ’08, he unveiled the “Roadmap for America’s Future Act of 2008” to reform entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—and reduce the deficit. It died in committee.
In January 2010, Ryan unveiled another “roadmap,” that would have privatized Medicare for those 54 and younger (when they reach the age of eligibility), cut income taxes, ended capital gains, dividends and interest taxes and abolished the corporate income, estate and alternative minimum taxes.
This past year, with Republicans in the majority, the House passed the Ryan plan by a vote of 235 to 193, with no Democrats and all but four Republicans voting for it. But like so much enacted in the Republican-controlled House, the plan died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
This year, Paul Ryan is back with another “Path to Prosperity” budget, focusing on tax cuts and reform of entitlements. In March, it passed the House by a margin of 228 to 191 and, in all likelihood, it will fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“And it’s not much different from last year’s [Republican] budget,” Ryan told Human Events recently, “In fact, it’s very similar in that it is a balanced budget, pro-growth, and contains key entitlement reform.” Under the latest version, the age for Medicare eligibility would raise beginning in 2023 from 65 to 67, and in Medicare’s future format, senior citizens would be given government assistance to purchase private health-insurance plans or could choose to apply their government assistance to the government option.
What is also the same for the Ryan budget in ’12 as it was in ’11 is that Democrats are taking aim at it in a big way. Led by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who recently denounced the plan as “a segmented replacement for Medicare that would burden seniors and end the program as we know it,” Democrats make it clear they intend to make Ryan and his budget political scarecrows on the campaign trail.
In calmly responding to these attacks, the 42-year-old Ryan demonstrates why he is perhaps his party’s best spokesman on budget issues—and why he is so often mentioned as its possible vice presidential nominee.
A new breed of political reformer
Any discussion with Paul Ryan inevitably moves to the topic of critics of his budget within his own party. As the Republican majority in the House moved closer to embracing the Ryan plan in 2011, Democrats were eying a win in the special U.S. House election for the Buffalo, New York-area district that had been in Republican hands for 41 years. Supporters of Democrat Kathleen Hochul ran spots showing a Ryan lookalike pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair off a cliff, with the not-so-subtle hint that Republican Jane Corwin was backing a plan that would take Medicare from “grandma.” Hochul edged Corwin, and the liberal media hailed a backlash against the Ryan plan.
Already this year, U.S. Senate nominee Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) distanced himself from the House GOP budget and cited as his reason—its eventual overhaul of Medicare.
“There are those who worry about political backlash,” observed Ryan, who, like his late mentor Jack Kemp, does not say a harsh word about those who disagree with him. “And it’s been the conventional attitude of the political class for some time. But there is also a new breed of political reformers who want to shift the ground, meet this moment, and bring about change from the debt-laden welfare state.”
By embracing the reforms and changes contained in his budget, Ryan believes, Republicans will indeed offer a clear-cut referendum between their vision of the future and that of Barack Obama and the Democrats. In his words, “we must get past the conventional fears and give people a choice.”
Rebuts criticism from Catholic bishops
Another skeptic of his plan that Ryan responds to with “respectful disagreement” is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has taken sharp issue with the House budget, which would enhance federal spending on social welfare programs at a far slower rate than the president’s budget does.
“This is an issue of budget policies, an issue of judgment on which people of goodwill can disagree,” says Ryan, himself a devout Catholic, “And frankly, our goals are perfectly consistent with the goals of the bishops—a society of upward mobility, an end to debt, and the goal of having welfare for the genuinely sick and poor.”
As for the bishops’ particular criticism of legislation from the Budget Committee to upend and reform the food stamp program, which will be brought to the House floor May 10, Ryan told us: “Look, spending on food stamps quadrupled in a decade, thanks to the increases in eligibility put in [its legislation] by [then-Speaker] Nancy Pelosi when Democrats were in control of the House. The program can’t keep growing at this rate and this bill brings its levels down by 2016. And what we are doing is applying the same reforms to the food stamp program that Congress passed to reform welfare—and a Democratic president signed—in 1996.
“And in the process, we gave people the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty and we achieve economic growth. We are now trying to replicate programs that work.”
Supports Gov. Walker
Because of his close identification with budget issues these days, it is sometimes difficult to get the seven-term lawmaker to expatiate on other things. But his record is just as conservative on most issues across the board. Ryan (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 93 percent) has also been a strong booster of gun-owners’ right, pro-life legislation, and tougher measures on illegal immigration.
Most of his working life has been spent on dealing with issues and public policy. A graduate of Miami University (Ohio), Ryan worked as speechwriter for Jack Kemp and William Bennett at their “Empower America” organization, and was then legislative director for Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Anticipating that incumbent Rep. Mark Neumann would run for the Senate in 1998, Ryan moved back to his hometown, mobilized a campaign in which he would easily win nomination and election (57 percent of the vote) to Congress.
Politico noted that, as the congressman’s “public profile has soared, Ryan has built a national operation that’s flush with cash and designed to defend himself and his party against attacks.” He has more than $5 million in cash for his re-election, with donations coming from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, pundits such as Fox News commentator and pollster Frank Luntz suggest that Ryan would be an excellent vice presidential running mate for Mitt Romney if for no other reason than he could flip Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes from Obama in ’08 to the GOP column.
Ryan does not go for the bait on that one, but at the mention of his home state instead discusses his friend and fellow Republican Scott Walker. The embattled governor faces a special recall election on June 5, the race already drawing national attention and being dubbed the “dress rehearsal” for the presidential contest in the fall.
“I support Scott Walker and have said so multiple times,” Ryan told us, “and I think he will survive. The results of his agenda [requiring many public employees to pay a greater share of their health and retirement programs] are paying off. Private sector jobs are being created and our economy is turning around. But when you think of the avalanche of Big Labor money coming in, the race is still too close for comfort.”
So finally we ask: if Romney called and offered him second spot on his ticket, what would Ryan do?
“That kind of talk takes serious consideration—by family, friends, and oneself,” he replied, “And it’s someone else’s decision. If that bridge ever came to cross, I’ll make the decision then.”
Whether or not he gets “the call,” and makes the decision, or whatever the fate of his latest budget, it is clear that the man from Wisconsin will be a major political player for years to come.