Paul Ryan: Budget wonk to Congress's rescue?

Paul Ryan now looks set to be speaker of the House. In many ways, his skill set aligns well with Congress's perpetual fiscal crises. 

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday following meetings with House Republican leaders and the Freedom Caucus members.

There was a time when Paul Ryan wanted to be an economist. He studied economics and politics as an undergrad, and after working summers as a salesman for Oscar Mayer (yes, he once got to drive the unforgettable Wienermobile), he thought he might go on to the University of Chicago, where Milton Friedman had taught.

“But I just kept getting really interesting jobs” in politics, he once explained.

Well, it's happening again. 

Just a few weeks ago, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin wanted to stay on as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He’d just secured that post in January, and for a budget and fiscal wonk like him, leading the tax-writing committee was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Then the House speakership came along. Chairman Ryan kept refusing entreaties to run, both for personal reasons (his family life) and professional ones (the chairmanship was his big chance to finally do something about tax and welfare reform – two of his goals).

But it looks like leading the topsy-turvy House is now his calling. And it’s one, say some observers, where he may be able to do more to further his goals, his party, and the country than if he had remained in his Ways and Means conference room just off the House floor.

“Wonk plus power equals accomplishments. Wonk without power is just a wonk,” says John Feehery, former spokesman to Rep. Dennis Hastert, the longest serving Republican speaker. 

It’s questionable how much power Ryan can muster as speaker, a position that seems to be his now that he’s won the support of all major Republican caucuses. Even the rebellious Freedom Caucus, the hard-liners who succeeded in driving Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio into early retirement, has swung behind Ryan.

But the hard-liners couldn’t gather enough votes to officially endorse him, and its roughly 40 members will be watching his every move. "This is not about crowning a king. This is about working together,” Freedom Caucus member Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho said Wednesday.

Right man, right moment?

Ahead lie a series of potentially explosive issues that perfectly align with Ryan’s policy skill set. It’s hoped that outgoing Speaker Boehner can handle at least one of them – averting a debt-ceiling crisis – before he leaves on Oct. 30. But there’s still a federal budget to be negotiated (the government runs out of money on Dec. 11), expiring tax breaks to be agreed on, and highway funding that dries up at the end of the month.

Ryan has extensive experience in all those areas. In 2013, as House budget chairman, he negotiated a two-year budget with his Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Patty Murray of Washington. Budget negotiations are now underway with the White House, but they aren’t getting very far – partly because of the leadership upheaval in the House and partly because of policy differences between the two parties and within the GOP.

Most House speakers don’t have line-item expertise on the tip of their tongue, says John Pitney, congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

“Somebody like Ryan can actually quote chapter and verse from the tax code, and that’s potentially very helpful in negotiations,” says Mr. Pitney. “You have somebody in the room who knows what he’s doing.”

Serious long-term issues also loom. They’re exactly the topics that excite Ryan: a national debt that’s $18 trillion and growing; reforms to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security; and changes to the tax code that politicians on both sides of the aisle agree are urgently needed – if only they could agree on when and what. 

Ryan’s immediate predecessor on Ways and Means, former Rep. Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, worked painstakingly on the first tax overhaul in 25 years, consulting with former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. But his plan to simplify the tax code, unveiled in 2014, never got taken up by Boehner.

As speaker, Ryan wouldn’t have that problem, says Chairman Camp in an interview.

“I spent some of my time trying to convince leaders of the House and Senate to take up tax reform. Paul Ryan won’t need convincing on that and a whole host of issues,” Camp said. Ryan’s policy expertise will be “invaluable” as speaker.

But even if Ryan is in a position to push the issues he knows and cares most about, he will still need to solve the politics puzzle.

Federal budget expert Stan Collender says that Ryan’s policy chops will be of only “marginal” use to him in his new job. That’s because budget and fiscal matters are driven by politics.

“Will it help that he was budget chairman? No. These are not substantive issues. These are political issues.”

The politics cut three ways – four, if you throw in the presidential election that makes it almost impossible to get anything done once 2016 hits. 

Ryan's challenges and advantages

First, there’s the partisan divide to be bridged. When Ryan joined Mitt Romney as his vice presidential running mate in 2012, Democrats excoriated the “Ryan budget” as a plan that would turn Medicare for seniors into a “voucher” system. 

Ryan described it as a “premium support” program that would allow future seniors to choose among private insurance plans – or opt for traditional Medicare. Voters didn’t buy the pitch, and Democrats still rail against it.

Second, there’s the GOP divide, driven by the Freedom Caucus. Third, there are the outside advocacy groups that fire up insurgents, like the Freedom Caucus, that tilt against “establishment” Republicans, of which Ryan has been tarred as one. 

Once admired as a conservative’s conservative, Ryan is being dumped on by some tea party supporters for his backing of immigration reform and for the Ryan-Murray budget compromise. Indeed, hardliners in Congress abandoned him on that vote, as they did on trade, which he personally negotiated with his Senate colleagues this year. 

Is all this challenging? Yes. But there are factors in his favor, too. 

Democrats are actually glad that Ryan is set to be the next speaker, with a nomination vote scheduled for Oct. 28 and a floor vote the next day. They see him as someone who negotiates in good faith, who looks for common ground, even if it’s square feet, rather than acres. 

“I’m a Paul Ryan fan,” Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters this week. He wasn’t kidding. 

Mr. Feehery suggests that if Ryan can get past some of these near-term issues, he can set the party up for 2016 and beyond by working out a common agenda with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell that all GOP factions can get behind. “That’s what’s been missing,” he says.

Others believe that Ryan’s fiscal and budgetary passions can actually bring House Republicans together. Republicans of all stripes want to restore fiscal responsibility and implement sweeping tax reform, said Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California, in a statement to the Monitor. “Ryan can unite the party behind credible plans to achieve these goals," said Nunes, who serves on Ways and Means with Ryan.

Camp also said that hardliners could become Ryan allies around tax reform. “My experience was that the Freedom Caucus was very interested in the prospect of tax reform.” There are some “very smart, capable” caucus members whom Ryan would do well to tap.

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