PAUL RYAN, free market extremist: With an economics degree in his pocket and small-government conservatism in his blood—Calvin Coolidge appointed his grandfather as a U.S. attorney—Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan rose quickly from Jack Kemp acolyte to ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee before the age of 40. A supply-sider and deficit hawk, Ryan is the author of the GOP’s only Congressional Budget Office–certified “road map” to balance the budget and eliminate the long-term deficit. His proposal calls for politically courageous cuts to beloved entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid—cuts so drastic that New York Times contributor James Kwak summarized their effects under the headline: “People will die.” Ryan has argued that the central battle in American politics is between “individualism and collectivism” and said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”
Paul Ryan, free market sellout: Ryan voted in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the widely despised bank bailout. He also endorsed the taxpayer-funded auto bailout, citing “mounting hardships” in a part of his state once dominated by carmakers. His ballyhooed spending plan is so incrementalist that it wouldn’t balance the budget until 2063. And this year, while defending his policies to The New York Times, the congressman declared, “I’m not trying to win an award from the Cato Institute.”
Which of these two snapshots represents the real Ryan? They both do.
Paul Ryan is one of the staunchest and most serious small-government advocates in Congress today, a policy innovator whose best work tests the convictions of his own party. He’s also a savvy Washington politician who defends parochial, home-state interests when necessary. He is a symbol of both the long-term potential for and inevitable limits upon free market reform.
The Cheerful Wonk
When Ryan is in Washington, he and his staff work out of a cramped Capitol Hill suite. Packed with bruised brown bookshelves that have been turned into makeshift partitions between workspaces, the office looks more like a study room in a middle school library. The shelves around the entryway are full of tool kits and toy construction trucks—plastic versions of the tractors, bulldozers, and heavy loaders that are crucial to many of the businesses in Ryan’s district.
It’s a perfect collection for someone who likes to both tinker with tiny details and dig into big projects. Ryan comes from a family in the industrial earthmoving trade. The business, now run by his cousins, was started by his grandfather (the one who wasn’t a U.S. attorney), and Ryan helped out as a kid. The company’s job is to clear away obstructions so the foundations for new enterprises can be laid. That’s as good a description as any for Ryan’s political goals, both for the GOP and for U.S. domestic policy.
Energetic and athletic (he worked part time as a fitness instructor before running for office and maintains a punishing workout routine), Ryan is surprisingly cheerful for a man who worries constantly about fiscal disaster. Without substantial policy changes, Ryan warns, “entitlements will collapse our economy.” And so he has made it his mission to “fix the country’s fiscal problem.” Many congressmen have sounded warnings about America’s precarious fiscal condition over the years. But unlike any other sitting legislator, Republican or Democrat, Ryan has actually put forward a solution—a plan that, at least in theory, could actually work.
According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which produces Congress’ official projections about the long-term fiscal effects of legislation, Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” would balance the budget by 2063 and reduce Medicare’s expected share of the economy from a currently projected 14.3 percent in 2080 to a mere 4 percent. It would also transform Medicare itself, using vouchers to push health care decisions toward the individual as it drastically cuts government spending. It calls as well for a substantial simplification of the tax code and the replacement of the corporate income tax with an 8.5 percent business consumption tax.
CBO’s projections are inherently uncertain—even the most competent economic forecasters can only guess at how the world will change over 50 years, and the plan’s revenue assumptions have already come under fire. But Ryan’s roadmap is, at the very least, a compelling vision of a fiscally sound future.
It is also a reflection of Ryan’s wonky streak. In the 1990s, he worked both for Bill Bennett’s conservative policy shop Empower America and as legislative director for Sen. Sam Brownback (R–Kan.). Today, according to his staff, he works out many of the details in his own legislation, a rarity on the Hill. He also brags about being “able to spend lots of time with the actuaries at HHS, with Social Security and CBO.”
In short, Ryan is as passionate about policy details as he is about his broader principles. That’s the combination that produced the roadmap. “I look at numbers, and I have deeply held principles and beliefs,” he says. “And all of those are on a collision course.”
A Test for Republicans
It’s not surprising that Democrats are indifferent to Ryan’s ideas. But the Republican establishment hasn’t been eager to embrace them either.
The modern GOP isn’t known for its devotion to policy work, and many Republican legislators seem uninterested in Ryan’s vision of the country’s fiscal future. His proposal, which is actually an update of a plan he initially put forth in 2008, has only nine co-sponsors so far, mostly conservative stalwarts. A number of prominent Republicans, including presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), have explicitly declined to support the plan. Meanwhile, GOP leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have all released statements staunchly opposing cuts to Medicare—the very cuts that are crucial to Ryan’s plan.