US Representative Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin is in line to become chairman of the House Budget Committee in the next Congress and is also a member of the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He spoke about America's high debt and deficits at a Dec. 2 breakfast in Washington, D.C.
Why he called the fiscal commission a success, but planned to vote against the final report:
"It was a success because (a) they advanced this conversation to the adult level that some of us have been struggling to get it to for a long time; (b) there's some really good policy things in here I like a lot and that I plan on picking up and moving in the future; (c) the reason I can't vote for the thing is because it not only didn't address the elephant in the room, health care, it made it fatter."
What he likes in the commission report:
"I think the tax direction is good: broaden the base, lower the rates.... [T]hey put a lot of my things on budget reforms in there.... Social Security, I don't like everything that's in there, but it was a serious plan and a good step in the right direction on how to make Social Security solvent."
Why he wouldn't use the commission report as a starting point:
"I think it makes health care dramatically worse.... The GAO [Government Accountability Office], in 2009, told us our unfunded liabilities were $62.9 trillion. Then a year later, they told us it was $76.4 trillion. Two weeks ago, they said, no, it's $88.6 trillion; $5.3 trillion of that is Social Security. The rest are health-care programs, federal health-care entitlements."
"I don't know, they don't talk to us.... I'm not saying it's a mean thing. [The Democrats] didn't need us. They didn't want us in the last session. So they didn't talk to us."
Whether talking to voters about entitlement reforms is still politically risky:
"You know, [Wisconsin Rep.-elect] Sean Duffy (R) had two months of ads run against him on Social Security and all these entitlement reforms, and he won.... So what I'm basically saying is the third rail is not the third rail anymore. The political weaponization of entitlement reform is no longer as potent as it used to be."
On preventing a debt crisis:
"What my road map is all about is preempting a debt crisis and doing it on our own terms – meaning with entitlements. If we act soon, you can grandfather people in in near-retirement. You can grandfather the grandparents, like we like to say, and avoid a European type of austerity, and you can keep tax rates low and focus on growth. We need to control spending and focus on growth."
"These are wonderful human beings who really care about the country, who bring a left-of-center perspective to things, but they're people you can work with."