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Paul Ryan on Baltimore: 'We need to get in communities and engage'

In the wake of riots in Baltimore, Rep. Paul Ryan on Thursday said it's time to discard a top-down, bureaucratized approach to poverty that measures success by money spent on programs.

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    Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin speaks at a breakfast for reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington on Thursday.
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Not even the tiniest bit envious that he isn't on the 2016 campaign trail, former vice-presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin covered a range of hot-button topics at a Monitor breakfast Thursday – including Baltimore, where he urged more community engagement by police.

Poverty has become an area of deep study for Representative Ryan, who is the proudly wonkish chairman of the powerful, tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. When asked what he thinks the federal role should be in places like Baltimore, which earlier this week saw riots in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, Ryan let it flow.

“Just because we’re for limited government as Republicans doesn’t mean we’re for no government. We’re for effective government,” he said. “We’ve got to get on this, and this does not have to be a Republican-Democrat kind of thing.”

Ryan says it’s time to discard a top-down, bureaucratized approach to poverty that measures success by money spent on programs. Rather, what’s needed are bottom-up, grass-roots strategies where success is measured by outcomes – by getting people out of poverty. In Congress, he’s pushing a related “evidence-based” bill with his former budget dealmaking buddy, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington.

In places like Baltimore, “we need to get in communities and engage, and listen, and learn.” He pointed to the website OpportunityLives.com, started by a former GOP Senate staffer, for examples of “heroes who are out there, in places like Baltimore, who are beating the odds, getting out of poverty, and helping others do the same.” 

People in poor communities are hurting and have “legitimate anxieties,” he said, but they also have potential. “We need to help figure out how to tap that potential – team up, partner, collaborate.”

Ryan addressed a host of other issues at the Thursday breakfast:

Tax reform and highways. He says he expects to produce “limited” tax reform this year, mostly related to the corporate tax rate, which both Republicans and President Obama want to reduce. He described tax reform as a “down payment” on more sweeping tax reform in 2017 – should Republicans win the White House.

Ryan and the White House want to use revenue from corporate overseas profits for long-term funding of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. Current funding for that runs out on May 31, and corporate tax reform won't get done in that time frame – so a temporary patch is likely for a highway bill, Ryan says.

Free trade. He expects the House to eventually pass “fast-track” trade legislation, which would give Congress an up-or-down say on trade agreements, but not the authority to amend a deal. Many Democrats and Republicans are against fast-track, saying free trade is a job-killer. 

The key to winning over the skeptics, he says, is educating them about the bill, which he says is much improved from the past. Ryan was a key negotiator on the bipartisan fast-track bill that’s now moving through both chambers.

A bipartisan budget deal. This week, Republicans in both chambers agreed on a GOP budget resolution that would cut domestic spending, increase military spending, and repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s not going to go anywhere with Democrats or the president. But Ryan maintains that a bipartisan budget agreement à la the “Ryan-Murray” deal of the recent past is “very viable and very possible.”

Big donors and 2016. With each campaign cycle, the hue and cry over a handful of deep-pocket campaign donors – often anonymous – grows louder. Ryan rejects several proposed solutions: publicly financed campaigns, greater transparency in donations, and a constitutional amendment to overturn a recent US Supreme Court ruling that greatly loosened campaign financing restrictions.

Ryan worries that a “knee-jerk” reaction would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech. Money follows power, he says, and the real way to tackle this problem is to “decentralize power” – send it back to the states. 

As for donors' influence on a candidate, that’s for the candidate to control, he says: “Just be yourself. Don’t be somebody else’s person.”

Hillary Clinton. Ryan refers to her as a “de facto incumbent.” In his campaign funding and operations work with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, Ryan says they are trying to build a “turnkey” operation that’s ready to go for whoever is the GOP nominee. 

“We see [Clinton] getting a huge head start, just like Obama had a massive head start” on Mitt Romney, he says. “We’re trying to do everything we can at the party to minimize that delta.”

And does he feel any twinge that he’s not in this race? 

Not a bit. He thinks he can make a “big difference” as the new chairman of Ways and Means, plus he’s home on weekends to be with his three tween children. 

“I’m a policy person,” he says. “The role I see myself playing is helping prepare for governing in 2017, helping the party prepare an agenda to show the country in 2016” so that there can be a “real, choice-based election.”

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