As the newly minted chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee in 2011, Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wisc.) delivered a sober message from the congressional floor.
"We are driving our country and our economy off of a cliff," he said. "The reason is that we are spending so much more money than we have. We can't keep spending money we don't have."
Despite a record of supporting costly wars and the massive expansion of Medicare under President George W. Bush—and No Child Left Behind, and the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), and the PATRIOT Act (and its renewals)—Ryan spent the early years of the Obama administration waving the banner of fiscal conservatism. He sounded dire warnings about the budget deficit, produced several proposals to balance the budget (eventually...), and championed the passage of spending caps as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. He rode that reputation as a budget wonk to a three-year run as Speaker of the House starting in October 2015.
But Ryan is now leaving office as an abject failure; a supposed budget hawk who presided over three years of growing deficits and laid the groundwork for worse ones to come.
At least he's decent enough to feel kinda bad about it.
"On healthcare itself and debt and deficits, it's the one that got away," Ryan said at an event hosted by The Washington Post last week, calling those issues (along with a failure to address immigration policies) his "biggest regrets" while in office.
More like the 400 billion that got away. That's roughly how much the budget deficit has grown during Ryan's tenure.
But the growth of the deficit only tells part of the story of Ryan's failure.
Earlier this year, the one-time budget hawk presided over the pre-dawn passage of a budget bill that makes mincemeat of the very spending caps Ryan championed back in 2011. The budget deal he inked with President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans in February grew government spending by about $400 billion this year, and it included an $165 billion boost for the Pentagon over the next two years. The budget deal will add an estimated $1.7 trillion to the federal debt in the next decade, according to a nonpartisan analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the deficit will continue to grow after Ryan leaves office. For the current fiscal year, which began on October 1, the CBO projects a budget deficit of $981 billion. By next year, the deficit will hit $1 trillion—driven by a combination of this year's spending hikes and last year's tax cuts. Without changes to current law, the deficit will continue to climb for the foreseeable future.
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) offered the best, most frank assessment of Ryan's time as Speaker when he told Reason's Nick Gillespie that fiscal conservatives were better off under Speaker John Boehner, who actually did reduce the deficit during his time with the gavel—and who did it while Democrats ran other parts of the government:
I would rather have the guy swearing at me and letting me have a vote than not considering me at all...Under [Ryan's] speakership, we've had the fewest open amendments of any speakership. We've had zero....Everything has to be pre-approved by the Speaker.... Under Boehner, you could walk up...and offer an amendment as long as it was germane to the bill, you got to vote on it. And this was true on basically all appropriations bills. Now, we don't even do appropriations bills. They come up with some omnibus bill and spring it on us at the last second and they say, 'This is the bill.'
Ryan was handed a golden opportunity to change the direction of America's fiscal trajectory—to stop driving off that cliff he talked about on the House floor back in 2011—and he choked.
Seeing as the rest of us will be paying for Ryan's budgetary hypocrisy for years to come, you'd think he could at least offer a real apology.
Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom