Paul Ryan: The Speaker Who Spoke About Deficits

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.

Advertisements

Mr. Madigan, Wisconsin Thanks You for Blocking Illinois Reforms

Early this month, when they hit taxpayers with a 32 percent jump in the individual income tax rate, many legislators broke a promise they had made: No more tax hikes without major reforms to help Illinois’ moribund economy. Don’t worry, said Democrats who pushed the tax hike. We’ll get to those reforms soon enough.

But not soon enough, we now see, to keep electronics giant Foxconn from bypassing Illinois to make a jobs-rich investment in southeast Wisconsin. This is a huge win for Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin whom Illinois Democrats loathe. Just as this is an embarrassment for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (as also for Senate President John Cullerton).

Once again, the people of Illinois see how Madigan and Cullerton, with their combined eighty-six years in Springfield (just let that sink in, eighty-six years, this is why we need term limits), have left Illinois ill-prepared to compete for 21st-century jobs. Their agenda is about raising taxes, not about delivering those reforms. Every other state on Foxconn’s short list looked better than Illinois by the basic measures of financial stability and pro-growth economies.

No wonder, then, that Illinois is starved for jobs. We expect to learn more in coming days about Foxconn’s thinking. We don’t know details of whatever federal, state and local government incentives lured the company “Beyond the Cheddar Curtain”. And we can’t be certain how many billions of dollars in investment, and how many thousands of jobs, Wisconsin will gain.

But we do know this: Wisconsin boasts a freshly burnished global image. One of the planet’s largest tech firms, with a million workers worldwide, says its search led it to bet a fraction of its future on Wisconsin. Assuming that happens, expect robust economic growth from suppliers, subcontractors, construction companies and other businesses that will serve Foxconn and its workforce.

Cranky Springfield apologists for Madigan and Cullerton will say I am overreaching, that Gov. Bruce Rauner is somehow to blame for losing Foxconn to Wisconsin. Except Rauner has been pushing exactly the kinds of employer-friendly reforms that Madigan and Cullerton have resisted, often to please their allies who lead labor unions.

It’s Madigan (and Cullerton) who’ve set up Illinois to fail in these contests for jobs. Madigan and Cullerton who haven’t sent Rauner a no-gimmicks property tax freeze to even slightly offset the extra $5 billion their income tax hike will gouge from companies and workers. Madigan and Cullerton who won’t make major fixes to a workers’ compensation system that drives away employers. Madigan and Cullerton who can’t deliver significant pension reforms to Rauner’s desk. Madigan and Cullerton who can’t bring themselves to slash that costly roster of seven thousand local governments.

The Chicago Tribune got it pretty good here:

Year upon year, these majority leaders haven’t delivered those sweeping solutions to the people of Illinois — citizens sufficiently exasperated that they fired one governor and hired another to disrupt Madigan and Cullerton’s statehouse. On their watch, Illinois has become a national embarrassment, a failed job creator whose young people are leaving by the tens of thousands.

Just as the Chicago Tribune did, I urge Madigan and Cullerton to run for re-election from their districts if they wish, but to step down from their leadership posts.

Enough of their games. Foxconn’s choice of Wisconsin offers a fresh opportunity to act on what’s wrong with Illinois:

We await the reforms legislators promised, so that Illinois doesn’t keep driving employers to other states.

Just as we hope Michael Madigan and John Cullerton realize they’ve delivered more for the governor of Wisconsin than for the people of Illinois.