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Is Paul Ryan Really a Moderate?

The Speaker’s radical agenda is bad for our health

May. 9, 2017
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Dave Obey is a former member of the United States House of Representatives, who represented Wisconsin’s 7th congressional district (Northwest Wisconsin) from 1969 to 2011. He was chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and was one of the most respected members of Congress by both his Democratic and Republican colleagues. Obey shares his thoughts on current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan exclusively with readers of the Shepherd Express.

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble; it’s what we know that ain’t so.” So said the American philosopher Mark Twain. Nowhere is that more in evidence than in America’s effort to figure out what is wrong with Washington—particularly the U.S. Congress.

In the days following the stunning—and to some of us alarming—election of Donald Trump, much of the national press held up hope that Trump’s reckless and chaotic action could, to some degree, be moderated and made more coherent by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan has been portrayed as “more moderate,” an “intellectual,” a “policy wonk,” steeped in the knowledge of the legislative process. It needs to be fully understood that Ryan in reality is quite different. 

In fact, Ryan is an intellectually rigid, romantic ideologue masquerading as a moderate and pragmatic legislator. That fact is the key to understanding why the GOP health care legislation he is trying to pass is such a political and policy mess. This is just the most recent example of his constant political and policy overreaching that has marked his legislative career.

Who else but a hopelessly romantic academic could believe that it was either good politics or good policy to try to force through his party caucus and the House of Representatives a scheme that would have stripped health security from more than 20 million Americans, chiseled consumers on coverage and produced (especially for older Americans) higher insurance premiums and higher out-of-pocket copayments for a product that was supported in public opinion polls by less than 20% of Americans.

Now, please understand. Paul Ryan is a nice man. I respect him. He has a nice demeanor. He does not degrade the nation’s political dialogue the way Trump does. I know, because I served with him in Congress for more than a decade. But the product he is selling would produce results as cruel as they are chaotic. And health care repeal has not been the only subject on which Ryan’s policy recommendations have produced negative and painful results. It is also true for the budgets he has tried to push through Congress during the many years he chaired the Budget Committee before he became Speaker of the House.

For at least a decade, he has been the driving force behind the House budgets that produced gridlock and at least one government shutdown and created pressure that has made the country less fair and the economy less strong. How did that happen?

To understand that, it is necessary to understand how the congressional budget process works. In the House, two committees have the primary responsibility to deal with spending: the Budget Committee, which Ryan chaired when the GOP was in the majority, and the Appropriations Committee, which I chaired when Democrats were in control.

Consideration of budget matters begins when the Budget Committee reports to the House a budget resolution which establishes targets for the size of the deficit or surplus, revenue levels and overall total spending levels. Those targets are loosely based on nonbinding assumptions about how those targets can be achieved. 

But the Budget Committee does not have to negotiate the thousands of compromises that are necessary to produce actually binding, program by program, decisions. Within the overall ceilings established in the budget resolution, that job is the responsibility of the Appropriations Committee on the spending side of the budget and the Ways and Means Committee on the revenue side. 

In other words, the Budget Committee can carry out its budget-cutting mission by flying at 30,000 feet, but the Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees must slug it out, specific cut by specific cut, in ground-level budget combat. That means it is easier to pass the budget resolution than it is the 12 appropriations bills that must follow because it contains only general instructions for making budget choices.

When the Appropriations Committee then has to present Congress with a long list of specific decisions and specific program cuts that are necessary to fit within the targets in the budget resolution, is where the rubber hits the road. When the Appropriations Committee brings to the House floor the bills that translate those general spending cuts into specific, program-by-program actions and cuts, surprised members who had supported the original budget resolution would often say, “You mean you want me to vote to cut that? No way; you’re out of your mind!” That has happened year after year because the Budget Committee under Ryan has overreached. It has been able to pass the original budget resolution because cuts were vague and non-specific. But, when the Appropriations Committee tried to implement the budget resolution, gridlock was born. 

For several years in a row, Ryan pushed budget resolutions that on paper seemed to make enough room with spending cuts and questionable economic assumptions to free up room for Ryan’s treasured tax cuts for America’s highest-income people. Over the last three decades, we have seen the largest transfer of income up the economic scale into the pockets of the top 1% in the history of the universe. But that has not been enough for Ryan. He wanted even more. But when they saw the specific cuts required by the budget resolution, significant numbers of members began to back off. They recognized that Ryan’s budgets were not so much real budgets; they were in fact ideological, wish-list press releases that, in reality, simply did not allow Congress to match what the public wanted by way of national priorities.

It turned out that Americans really did not want to slash Pell Grants and other student aid programs that help kids from working families go to college. They did not want to short sheet transportation programs, food stamps or medical research on diseases such as stroke, Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease. They did not want to hurt middle-class families who need Medicaid to pay for nursing home costs when grandma has had a stroke. Ryan’s approach in pushing his preferred policy choices to the limit in his budget resolutions showed the same thing that his health repeal bill had revealed. Far from being a moderating influence on Trump, Ryan showed that, on economic issues, he was more ideological and more determined to shred the nation’s safety net than Trump is. And therein lies the irony.

Trump began his campaign by attacking the establishment of his own party. The irony of his election is that he will now be used as the instrument by which that same GOP establishment, led by Ryan, will seek to impose the Ayn Rand Darwinist “Survival of the Fittest” agenda that it has dreamed of for decades. Certainly, on economic issues, Ryan is no moderate who will save the nation’s safety net from Trump; in fact, it may be just the opposite. 

All of this means that we are left with two realities about Paul Ryan.

In setting the nation’s budget priorities, at least during the campaign, Trump said he would protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—the three pillars of economic justice for the middle class and the poor. In contrast, Ryan has indicated just the opposite. Over the years, he has made it clear that he is an economic romantic who has an idealized view of the benign impact that the economic marketplace can have on the vulnerable in our society. He apparently believes that the more that the recipients of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are reliant on the tender mercies of the marketplace, the better off the vulnerable among us will be.

On health care, during the campaign, Trump promised that everyone would be covered at far cheaper prices. But before long, Trump was hijacked by Ryan and his congressional allies who produced a product that did just the opposite.

So, bottom line? Ryan as a moderate? Sorry, but the only thing moderate about Paul Ryan is his demeanor!


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