Free Minds & Free Markets

Budget Hawks Fly the Coop

Goodbye to Paul Ryan, Jeff Flake, and Mark Sanford.

More than a decade ago, a young Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.) swooped into the House Budget Committee, talons extended. Even before he ascended to committee chairman in 2011, the hardcore hawk had already drafted functional legislation to replace Medicare with vouchers. He was going to privatize Social Security! There were tax cuts balanced by huge cuts to discretionary spending! He gave his interns copies of Atlas Shrugged and slept in his office to save taxpayers money! His reputation as a wonk preceded him and he rose high, gliding on the updrafts of the Tea Party movement.

But as the 115th Congress comes to a close, Ryan is slinking out the door like a trod-upon rattlesnake. The speaker of the House declined to seek re-election, an unusual move for a man at the height of his congressional powers. The announcement of his departure checked all the boxes of a political life well-lived: generic remarks about spending more time with his family, a valedictory tweet from the president about "a legacy of achievement no one can question," even an official portrait to unveil. But it rang hollow.

Ryan sought power and won it, but it came at a high cost. There is every reason to believe he compromised time and time again because he genuinely hoped to use his power to achieve the meaningful goals he arrived with so many years ago. He came close to attaining the summit, picking up the party's vice presidential nod in 2012 under former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But there's simply no getting around the fact that he never did get to the payoff. Annual deficits spiked on Ryan's watch, going from $430 billion when he took the gavel in 2015 to almost $1 trillion now. He also voted for nearly every meaningful expansion of the scope of the federal government (with their associated opportunities to spend more money) other than the Affordable Care Act, including No Child Left Behind, the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the PATRIOT Act, and more. He did deliver on tax cuts, but without any of the attendant reforms to entitlements or spending that he so carefully paired them with as a younger, more optimistic man.

"On health care itself and debt and deficits," he said at an event hosted by The Washington Post at the end of November, "it's the one that got away." He also regretted not getting an immigration deal done, he admitted. He's not the only one.

On the other side of the Capitol rotunda an alternate version of this story was unfolding, starring Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Ariz.). In October 2017, he also announced he would not seek re-election, but in a far more pointed way: "The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I'm not willing to take, and that I can't in good conscience take. It would require me to believe in positions I don't hold on such issues as trade and immigration, and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone."

Flake then went on to infuriate nearly everyone on his way out the door by standing on both principle and ceremony as it suited him. He threatened to withhold his vote on Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination before eventually relenting and voting with his party. President Donald Trump called him "toxic," and weeping sexual assault activists cornered him in an elevator. Even among those who do not appreciate them, Flake's antics have mostly been correctly read as the senator following his conscience. But some see it as unorthodox positioning (read: showboating) for a 2020 challenge to Trump.

Flake's record isn't spotless either. His hobbyhorse was always eliminating earmarks, and he religiously kept up that drumbeat. He stuck by controversial votes against disaster relief as well. He fought the party powers that be on immigration and on portions of the PATRIOT Act. But keeping peace with his party required "yes" votes on decidedly nonlibertarian attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions and on foreign adventurism in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Flake's elections were brutal, with small margins and fierce rhetoric.

The toll from those compromise votes and hard-fought campaigns seemed to show on his face. At times, the weary, rumpled Flake was like the portrait Paul Ryan kept in his attic.

Then there's Mark Sanford, the South Carolina Republican who has done two stints in the House, with a period as governor (and national laughingstock) in between. Sanford does not go along to get along. Early in his career, he was already making enemies of other Republicans: In 1999, Sanford and pal Tom Coburn (R–Okla.) shut down floor debate over a lardy appropriations bill against the express wishes of their own party leadership.

As South Carolina governor, Sanford discovered some accounting trickery that was allowing pork barrel spending to sneak into the budget. In response, he brought two piglets to a press conference in 2004. "With cameras rolling and lawmakers and lobbyists gaping," Columbia's The State reported, "Sanford stood just outside the House chambers, pigs wriggling under his arms, pig feces on his jacket and shoes, and criticized House members for burying pork-barrel projects in the budget."

In 2013, Sanford unexpectedly and semi-triumphantly returned to Congress after a short political exile that followed—though was not directly caused by—a high-profile international extramarital affair. He won his campaign that year without the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In the end, Sanford got primaried. Booted by a Trump-backed candidate. The president called him "a nasty guy" on the way out, tweeting, "I have never been a fan of his." It will be cold comfort for Sanford to see a Democrat take that seat in January, as he largely went along with Trump's GOP on policy, though he parted ways with the president on tone and rhetoric—something he made no secret about.

Three congressional Republicans walk away from the Capitol. Their stories are different, but they started in the same place: with a genuine commitment to principles of limited government. And now all three are taking their ideology and going home.

Each of these men, in his own way, is a lesson in how politicians will inevitably break your heart. They either stick to their guns and lose, or they compromise until they eventually can't take it anymore.

Folks on the far left are about to learn this same lesson. A small class of New Socialists is marching on the Hill with fire in its eyes as I write. But safe money says that even in the best-case scenario for them, by 2030 democratic socialist darling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) will be turning in her lapel pin, having ignominiously voted for massive military appropriations, messy entitlement legislation, and tax increases on the working class. Even the most lustily wielded sickles dull soon enough.

There are still some on the Hill fighting for limited government and budgetary sanity: Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, plus Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

In 2017, White House staff showed Donald Trump the famous "hockey stick" graph of national debt projections, according to the Daily Beast; noting that the spike would occur after the end of his hypothetical second term, he casually dismissed the problem, saying, "Yeah, but I won't be here then." Still, the president is not to blame for the federal government's lack of fiscal continence, no matter what Flake or Sanford say. Trump may have driven this batch of budget hawks out of the coop, but Republicans' utter lack of interest in economic discipline is the culmination of a long trend. Fiscal prudence remains a part of the GOP's DNA, but the trait is currently dormant.

A real budget reformer in the country's highest office could revive the prospects for reform—and perhaps generate more popular support. But hawks are solitary creatures. Ryan chose domestication, settling on Trump's glove and accepting scraps. Sanford wheeled and tried to peck the president's eyes out. Flake simply flew away, screeching.

Photo Credit: Dennis Holcomb/iStock (left); Kevin McCollum/iStock (right)

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  • DajjaI||

    Nothing will happen until the kids get into the streets to protest it. Why? Because they're the ones who are going to have to pay it back (or go to war if they default), and as long as they are rolling over for us, then we're happy to keep piling on the debt. In fact this is why the gun control debate is so popular, even though school shootings are really a tiny problem despite all the attention - because it's a distraction to keep them from questioning their teachers' pensions. And we laud them endlessly for being activists on this issue, because it's actually going to instigate a war on guns and they will be its victims (just like the war on drugs). Instead we need to ban autism 'treatment', which is really just mass shooter training. Anyway we need to end medicare and social security and sure old people will have to move back in with their families. But that's ok. It's actually healthy. It makes people think twice before having more kids they can't afford. And by 'afford' I don't mean financially. I mean, raising them with the ethic to be responsible for themselves.

  • DajjaI||

    The kids just elected a House on gun control. So, yeah.

  • JFree||

    It won't happen if they merely protest either - and they won't protest because they have, far more than in other countries, simply tuned out. The demographics of actual voters (and those registered to vote) and those they elect are more out of whack with 'average' than at any time ever.

    Avg age of critter - 60. In 1981, it was 50
    Avg age of voters - 48. This is comparable to avg age of registered voters
    Avg age of Americans of voting age - 42

    It is rational for critters to only care what active voters think and for voters to only give a damn about themselves (not their kids or grandkids). So those can't change and they do not even have the ability to introduce something different on the agenda. Those two groups (roughly 93 million) are part of the problem not the solution. Not just debt but anything which involves intergeneration impact.

    The agenda/solution can only come from the inactive registered (46 million), non-registered (47 million), and totally tuned out (35 million). Can't be corraled into existing politics so their only voice has to come thru some competition with status quo. My guess is some combo of online assembly - selected by sortition - with element of liquid demo thru blockchain currency

  • Robert||

    It won't be old people moving back in w their families, it'll be their families moving back in w them, b/c the old people will have all their $.

  • Brian||

    Clearly, you're not bitter.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Dumbfuck Hihnsano's only rebuttal is "I can't read past page one of the Heller decision."

  • Sevo||

    Fuck off, Hihn. I was hoping you'd died.

  • JoeBlow123||

    You are one weird person of coot.

  • eyeroller||

    In a democracy, it's hard to be a principled politician when your constituents have no principles other than "give me more".

  • A Lady of Reason||

    I'm sire Trump will keep winning in 2019!

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    No, 2019 will be the year Robert Mueller presents the findings of his meticulous investigation into Russian collusion. He will remove Putin's Puppet from office with the help of the Democratic House. Then Hillary Clinton can take her rightful place as President of the United States.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    None of which is a crime, even if it did happen, which it looks more and more like it didn't.

    Why are you here?

  • DenverJ||

    It's satire.

  • A Lady of Reason||

    I'm sure Trump will keep winning in 2019!

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Of Ryan, you wrote: "He also regretted not getting an immigration deal done, he admitted."

    See, there was a lot of his problem. Balancing the budget is a good idea, that's popular in theory, but politically poisonous in practice. (Because you're trying to outbid opponents who aren't limiting their promises to what's fiscally responsible, you'll lose the bidding war every time.) But, because it IS popular in theory, if all the stars aligned, and you played like a master, you might manage it anyway, if you were really lucky.

    But yoke that popular in theory but toxic in practice position, to another that's unpopular and toxic, (Amnesty!) and you're just hilariously doomed. Especially when the second part of your agenda drives away exactly the supporters you need to get the first part done.

  • JesseAz||

    Paul Ryan was only a budget hawk vocally. That man caved more than a professional spelunker. It was embarrassing watching house passed bills continue to grow the government. He never even addressed baseline budgeting. Man is a fraud.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Absolutely. The whole idea that Ryan was ever really fiscally conservative is laughable. Anytime it came down to realaction he shit the bed.

  • Bob Meyer||

    The budget was balanced in the late 1990's and it was hardly toxic. The problem was the deplorable George W Bush who never vetoed any expenditure for six years. What changed his mind? Stem cell research! To this he added two useless and destructive wars which made America less safe than it was.

    Bush, who was the worst president in my lifetime, (I was born during the Truman administration) doubled the national debt. Then came Obama who almost effortlessly took the title of worst president since Truman by redoubling the national debt. Two wars were not enough for Obama, he bombed four more countries.

    However, were it not for Bush, Obama would have remained a useless back-bencher. Bush made Obama possible.

    Ryan, however, was never principled. After being publicly reminded that Ayn Rand was an atheist, he ran from "Atlas Shrugged" like a vampire from a cross.

  • Bob Meyer||

    You're ignoring the recession in 1990 - 1991 which lasted 8 months. The 90 month recovery was nothing of the sort. The average growth of the economy over the 100 years prior to Obama was 3.5%. Under Obama it never hit 3% for an entire year. He averaged slightly over 2% over his tenure.

    Your budget numbers didn't include Social Security which resulted in overall surpluses for two years.

    What makes the Obama "recovery" a complete joke is that government spending is considered to be part of GDP. The real growth was closer to negative considering the ridiculous levels of non value added spending during his reign.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Jou just engaged Hihn and contradicted him. He will now attack you in deranged fashion. Viciously, amnd endlessly.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    Basically all that happened then was that we had the internet stock bubble, at the same time that Congress and the President were at each other's throats, so they couldn't quite agree on how to spend the loot.

    You can't schedule stock bubbles in advance, or keep them going, and spending is now on autopilot, even in the middle of trying to impeach Trump spending will, predictably, go up.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    More terrible economic news.

    US stocks post worst year in a decade as S&P 500 falls more than 6%


  • Rockabilly||

    What's a 'deficit' when you have a printing press?

  • Earth Skeptic||

    And what's a "democracy" when you have a nation of idiots?

  • Qsl||


    Even supposing Ryan, Flake, or whomever were successful, it would all be undone with the next pendulum swing. Cutting spending is at best a temporary solution. Fundamental reforms on how taxes are raised, how spending is approached, and making it difficult to change these without broad-based support.

    For that, you need a reimagining of government, and that only seems to come from the left. The rhetoric of Sanders at least identifies the problems, even if his solutions are unworkable. And in the face of that, the budget hawks have absolutely nothing to offer.

  • Rockabilly||

    Witches fuming over Trump's use of 'witch hunt'

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    Yep, they were frauds, just like you are.

    P.S.: Happy New Year to the many Obamite/Sorosian Professional Fake Libertarian globalists here at Reason!! Here's to another year of dishonest arguments, double standards, outright lies, and begging like hell for jobs at the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Atlantic.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

    I don't share your disappointment with Reason's staff or editorial direction. Except for gun control, I find Reason's writers get most big issues correct. Especially Shikha Dalmia, my favorite libertarian writer, with her uncompromising support of open borders. In fact the piece I link in my name is still the best example of persuasive libertarian writing I've ever had the pleasure to read.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Not too bad.

  • Overt||

    The juxtaposition of Flake and Ryan is really telling for KMW.

    Essentially, she judges Ryan on his actions, and Flake on his (imputed) intentions. Flake voted in anti-libertarian ways all the time, including his horrible decisions around Kavanaugh. But because Mangu-Ward assumes that he was following his conscience (instead of playing foil to Trump in his own bid to challenge in the primaries) he gets a pass.

    At the end of the day, our Republic's electorate doesn't value fiscal sanity. Mitt/Ryan tried to run on a platform of fixing our entitlements, and lost to Obama. Bush tried reforming Social Security in his second term, and it went nowhere. It's fine to point out leaders' failures here, but it is also time to really focus on the actual problem: our electorate. It is simply not going to get us anywhere so long as we "blame" leaders for doing what the majority of the public wants.

  • creech||

    Ryan spoke at the 50th anniv. of the publication of "Atlas Shrugged." I remember asking him how he intended to reform social security. His answer was, basically, all we can do is nibble with reforms because it is the third rail of politics. AARP and others go nuts at any reform attempts that don't stop at "soaking the higher earners." So how do we turn off the electricity???

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    Any time I've suggested solutions here, (I.e. actually doing something) I've been attacked. Very few people will actually discuss solutions. They just want to bitch.

    The only reals ay to deficit things is to do something about the progressives first. But very few will admit that. And fewer still are ready to actually do something.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    As individuals we are sometimes rational. As large groups, mobs, we're at best rationalizing. That's one of the fundamental reasons why as many decisions as possible should be made at the lowest level possible, ideally the level of the individual.

    No matter how much it looks like moving the decision up to a higher level might result in a better outcome. It just guarantees the decision is either made by a mindless mob, or by a demagogue leading the mob.

    But, you know, entropy rules: Once you let the system centralize, dispersing all that power back to small groups and individuals is hard, because the center doesn't want to let it go, and any effort to get people together to fight the center just assembles a mob. Intelligent mass action is basically a contradiction in terms.

    In nature, the solution to this is to reseed order from some small subset of the decaying system, then let the larger system die, and the new system grow to replace it. Birth and death. Nations and cultures die, too. We should concern ourselves with learning all the lessons the death of ours' has to teach us, to pass on to the people who will supplant them.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    The Sad Truth that no one (here) wants to face is that for us to achieve Liberty, the system must have its inevitable collapse, and then - and only then - can we rebuild a free society from the chaos of its [the previous Leviathan's] wake.

    Rather than rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, try positioning yourself to prosper in the coming apocalypse. Hint: people in your network are your most important (only) asset.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Hint: people in your network are your most important (only) asset.

    Please. Far too many of the "libertarian" commenters here actually think they're going to be able to survive on their own in that kind of retro-Roman Empire style societal collapse because "MUH GUNZ". They don't understand how communities function, nor do they want to.

  • Moderation4ever||

    The electorate knows something that Paul Ryan doesn't. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are not entitlements. We pay for those programs. Now to be sure they are not financially stable. But the only way Ryan has ever addressed the problem is through cutting the programs. There are ways through cuts and revenue increases to make the program more stable. People want these programs so why not address problems with an eye to keeping the programs. The electorate knows what they want. Paul Ryan just doesn't want them to have it.

  • Mickey Rat||

    They are entitlements by income transfer. And their fiscal issues are caused by demographics. What their supporters want is a fantasy.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    The U.S. Supreme Court pretty clearly said otherwise in Flemming v. Nestor. Those programs can be amended or completely eliminated through the normal legislative process.

  • SIV||

    Remember when Kirsten Gillibrand was an Upstate NY Blue Dog Democrat representative with a "B+" rating from the NRA?

    That was back when Jeff Flake was a "libertarian-leaning" Republican Congressman from Arizona.

    Then they both got elected to the Senate and we found out who they really were.

  • Eddy||

    "Remember when Kirsten Gillibrand was an Upstate NY Blue Dog Democrat representative with a "B+" rating from the NRA?"

    Unless you're an elephant or Pepperidge Farm, you probably don't remember.

  • Spookk||

    "with a genuine commitment to principles of limited government."

    What a lode of total crap!


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