Paul Ryan is a creature of Congress. Elected to the House in 1998 at the age of 28, the Wisconsin Republican had even spent much of the prior six years on or around Capitol Hill working as a staffer and at a conservative think tank.
Over that span, the man Mitt Romney tapped as his vice presidential running mate came to define his party's position on debt and deficits, after a rapid rise to lead the Budget Committee by virtue of his grasp on federal spending.
In a toxic political environment, he has built personal friendships and worked on policy proposals with Democrats, but he has yet to put his shoulders behind any bipartisan political initiative to rein in the national debt. Although Democrats dub his budgets extremist, Representative Ryan's voting record ranks in the center of his caucus.
Among Republicans, Ryan is seen as a leader and tutor on budget issues, a convivial mentor with deep knowledge of federal spending. And it is without question that he has done more to shape how Republican lawmakers talk about the budget than any other member of Congress.
“Nobody understands the federal budget better than Paul, or has worked harder to develop and offer real solutions to the fiscal challenges facing America,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin in a statement.
Ryan’s budgets, passed by the House in both 2011 and 2012, came to define the House GOP position on spending, entitlement reform, and deficit reduction.
In addition, they've given Republicans license to rip the Democratic-controlled Senate for failing to pass a budget in three years. That, in turn, has allowed Republicans to counter Democratic attacks of an obstructionist, tea-party-controlled Congress with the simple rejoinder: What’s your solution?
That’s a theme picked up by the Romney-Ryan presidential campaign.
“I believe my record of getting things done in Congress will be a very helpful complement to Governor Romney’s executive and private-sector success outside Washington,” Ryan said in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday. “I have worked closely with Republicans as well as Democrats to advance an agenda of economic growth, fiscal discipline, and job creation.”
In fact, the actual record of accomplishment is less robust than the debate it has inspired.
In a few instances, Ryan has crossed the aisle to work with Democrats. Among his bipartisan moves is an as-yet-unsuccessful effort with the Budget Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, to give the president a line-item veto.
There’s also Ryan’s work with Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon on what has come to be known as the Ryan-Wyden route to reforming Medicare: allowing seniors to opt into a system of “premium support,” where they would receive government checks to help them buy private health insurance, or stay in traditional Medicare.
His personal connection with lawmakers doesn’t stop at the chamber doors. A bipartisan group of lawmakers including Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee and Rep. Heath Shuler (D) of North Carolina are regulars at grueling morning workout sessions hosted by Ryan, an exercise buff and former personal trainer.
But that personal connection with lawmakers stands in contrast to what even a colleague who has worked most with him, Representative Van Hollen, sees as an unwillingness to cut a deal on big issues.
"I like Paul Ryan personally and have enjoyed the very sharp, but always civil, debates we have had in the House Budget Committee on the future direction of our country,” said Van Hollen, in a statement after news of Ryan’s addition to the Republican presidential ticket.
"It’s important not to mistake civility with a willingness to compromise,” he added, in an interview Monday morning on MSNBC’s "Daily Rundown."
That unwillingness to compromise means that Ryan has had little impact on the nation’s actual fiscal trajectory, despite his budget’s high profile on Capitol Hill.
The number of Democratic senators who agree with him on a potential Medicare fix (one, Senator Wyden) is eclipsed by the five Senate Republicans who helped a united Democratic front defeat his budget earlier this year. In the House, 14 Republicans voted against his budget, with zero Democrats in favor.
Less noticed than his budget plans but also infuriating to Democratic lawmakers was Ryan’s proposal to head off the budget-slashing sequester, or automatic spending cuts for each of the next 10 years agreed to in a 2011 deal to lift the nation’s debt ceiling. His proposal, which Democrats castigated during Budget Committee hearings, cut deep into social services spending and the retirement plans of government employees, while exempting the Pentagon from any reductions.
That legislation, approved with no Democratic support, was dead on arrival in the Senate.
Ryan served on a presidential commission jn 2011 to study the nation’s debt and deficits, and he voted with two of his House GOP colleagues and several Democrats against the final plan. (By contrast, two GOP Senate conservatives on the commission, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho, backed the plan.) That plan, which came to be known as Bowles-Simpson after the commission’s leaders, is regarded as a blueprint for bipartisan compromise on the issue of debt and deficits in a way that Ryan’s own budget has never been.
While Ryan is deeply involved in the House GOP legislative strategy, only two bills that Ryan has personally authored have been signed into law – one renaming a post office, the other changing the way arrows (think bow and arrow) are handled with excise tax. He has cosponsored nearly 1,000 bills.
Democrats expect to gain a political edge in November by tying Romney and congressional Republicans to Ryan's controversial budget provisions such as reshaping Medicare and cutting social programs. Ryan's actual voting record, meanwhile, puts him squarely in the middle of the House GOP. In fact, Ryan broke with his party on two key votes, siding with Democrats to bail out Wall Street and the auto industry in 2008.
Compared with his 243 House GOP colleagues, Ryan is in the less conservative half of the caucus: The National Journal ranks him as the 150th most conservative legislator.
When compared with previous vice presidential picks, however, Ryan’s overall voting record is the farthest from the ideological center of any vice presidential candidate from Congress since 1900, according to an analysis by Nate Silver of The New York Times’ 538 blog.
Ryan has been a stalwart vote for anti-abortion issues, lending his sponsorship of so-called “personhood” legislation that would define life as beginning at conception.
Such legislation would render some forms of abortion and contraception as tantamount to murder, and it has been a flashpoint for culture-war politics in several state legislatures. He has cast “aye” votes for legislation defunding Planned Parenthood and a branch of the Health and Human Services Department that provides family planning services to low-income Americans.
On gay rights, Ryan’s record is mixed. He voted for a measure that would ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but he has been a stalwart supporter of legislation in Wisconsin and in Washington to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Even so, Ryan has, on at least two occasions, cast votes fraught with political peril in voting for bills that the GOP’s tea party wing loves to hate: rescue packages (to their foes, bailouts) for the auto and financial industries.
The Wall Street rescue, formally the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), shows that when the stakes are high enough, Ryan has been willing to go against his party.
“We worked with our colleagues on the other side to make this a better bill,” Ryan said on the House floor during the 2008 TARP debate. “Why did we do all of this? This Wall Street crisis is quickly becoming a Main Street crisis.... This bill offends my principles, but I’m going to vote for this bill in order to preserve my principles, in order to preserve this free enterprise system.”