Most know how to get most members of Congress and candidates to mumble uncomfortably: Ask for their plans to deal with the nation’s troubling debt load and unsustainable Medicare and Social Security burdens. Politicians love to make lofty promises; they hate to be associated with responsible budget-cutting proposals.
One high-profile exception to that rule is U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, who announced Wednesday he will leave Congress at the end of his current term. Ryan’s been a favorite of mine through his years in Washington because he isn’t afraid to talk about the trillions of dollars America doesn’t have — but spends anyway! — for entitlements. And he sticks his neck out to propose budget solutions.
Back in 2011 when the national debt was $15 trillion and Ryan was about to be accused in an attack advertisement of “throwing granny off the cliff”, he said he’d keep trying to fix massive social programs like Medicare, in order to protect America’s future fiscal health.
“What if your congressman, your president knew what was coming and did nothing?” “… Everyone tells me that I’m giving our political adversaries the massive political weapon to use in the next campaign. Yes, we are. But you know, if you don’t start fixing these things ….”- Speaker Paul Ryan
Today the national debt is $21 trillion. The Medicare trust fund that pays hospital expenses will be depleted in 2029, according to a recent estimate. Social Security will have a shortfall beginning in 2034. Yet the 2018 election season will find many candidates, especially Democrats, embracing a form of universal health insurance they call “Medicare for all.” How to pay for it? Voters are more likely to see another “granny ad” than a detailed plan.
I am not suggesting Ryan, who chaired the House budget and tax-writing committees before becoming speaker, had all the answers. Ryan and his allies in 2011 proposed reining in the deficit and debt partly through a revamping of Medicare that would use a voucher system to provide subsidies for seniors to obtain private insurance. This was a linchpin of the Ryan budget plan. The idea — a more free-market approach — is still floating out there, but the national political focus shifted to Obamacare. Part of Ryan’s concern was that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would become another costly burden for states. How to fix or replace Obamacare? Hmm, neither Ryan nor his predecessor as speaker, John Boehner, could solve that thorny problem.
Ryan said he will not seek re-election because it’s time to go home to his family. He doesn’t want to be a permanent “weekend dad.” He never burned with desire to be speaker, but someone in the fractured Republican Party has to wrangle the House cats. Ryan, a respected conservative with strong policy chops, stepped up. Dealing with irascible President Donald Trump made a tough job tougher. Ryan said he isn’t leaving out of fear the Republicans will lose control of the House in November, but such worries seem unavoidable.
No one knows what Ryan plans next. In 2012 he was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate. In 2016, when Republicans braced for the possibility of a deadlocked convention, I rooted for an alternative to Trump and suggested Ryan. That doesn’t mean he should run for president, or that he would earn my support.
But there should always be a prominent role in politics for principled budget-minders. That is Ryan’s congressional legacy.