A Day With ‘America’s Accountant’ Paul Ryan
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Note: Free Enterprise staff writer Sheryll Poe spent a day in April 2011 with Rep. Paul Ryan in his Wisconsin district talking about his plan to address the nation's fiscal challenges. Below is her story.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) runs a tight schedule and does not like to keep his constituents waiting. The 41-year-old chairman of the House Budget Committee is a rising star of the Republican Party and frequent target of President Obama. And he does not sit still.
On a cold, rainy Tuesday in April, more than 160 constituents came to hear Ryan speak at The Gathering Place, a community center in Milton, Wisconsin (population 5,564). It’s one of 19 town hall listening sessions that Ryan will attend over the two-week congressional recess, adding to the more than 500 listening sessions he has held since elected to the House in 1998 at the age of 28.
The tables are decorated with paper-mache birdhouses, and every seat is taken. People of all ages—including a few school-age kids out on spring break—crowd in the doors and around the table with the large metal coffee urn. A buzz of conversation hums through the room as people from Ryan’s 1st District in southern Wisconsin discuss the economy and the area’s 10.7% unemployment rate.
A rail-thin fitness buff (he’s a fan of the P90X program), Ryan darts in precisely at 9 a.m. Wearing a blue oxford button down and khakis, he looks a bit like a college professor as he launches into his PowerPoint presentation, which he will present four more times that day.
Ryan quickly lays out his main points and explains his budget proposal. Spending is out of control, and Congress is going to have to make some “tough decisions” on the “unpaid promises” of entitlements. He says that his “bold budget” proposal will help the country “tackle these problems before they tackle us.”
Ryan’s plan would slash up to $6 trillion in the next 10 years, lowering government spending to below 2008 levels and reducing the deficit by $4.4 trillion. It accomplishes this by reducing spending, reforming and cutting entitlements, and overhauling sections of the tax code.
His budget plan also cuts the top income tax rate from 35% to 25%—which concerns some people from Milton, a town with a median household income of $49,982.
During the question and answer portion of the event, a constituent who described himself as a “lifelong conservative” asked Ryan why he was fighting to keep taxes low for top earners. The question drew a round of applause. Ryan argued that “we do tax the top,” which drew a chorus of boos. Undeterred, Ryan continued, “Let’s remember, most of our jobs come from successful small businesses—two-thirds of our jobs do. You’ve got to remember, businesses pay taxes individually. So when you raise their tax rates to 44.8%, which is what the president is proposing, I would just fundamentally disagree. That is going to hurt job creation.”
Making Waves and Drawing Criticism
Ryan is unapologetic and undeterred whether it comes to criticism from the president or from his own constituents. Just days before, President Obama was caught criticizing Ryan during a donors' dinner when he thought the microphone was off. The president also attacked Ryan’s budget proposal during a speech at The George Washington University earlier in the week. Ryan takes it in stride. “I just don’t see the benefit or value in responding with the political bickering back and forth. I think the president is bigger than the speech and his comments of late,” Ryan says.
However, Ryan’s budget cleared the House 253-195 and has received praise from potential GOP presidential candidates, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), and organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the U.S. Chamber. “We are pleased to see someone taking a hard look at these challenges that threaten to plague future generations. It is tackling the tough choices outlined in this proposal that will be critical to ensuring prosperity and long-term economic growth,” U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue said in an April 5 statement.
On today’s scheduled stops, Ryan is dynamic and engaged, keeping the ball rolling, urging ramblers to get to their questions, clarifying and condensing other questions, and keeping notes on his yellow legal pad to make sure that he addresses every point.
The majority of questions at the Milton stop deal with health care, especially Ryan’s proposal to cut $389 billion from Medicare, the public health insurance program for seniors, and put
$735 billion less toward Medicaid, which benefits poor Americans. Ryan’s budget calls for block grants to states for Medicaid, which governors of both parties have endorsed.
It would also transform Medicare from a program in which the government directly pays medical bills into a voucher-like system that subsidizes purchases of private insurance plans. People 55 and over would remain in the current system, but those 54 and under would receive subsidies for private health insurance.
Ryan says that there’s been a 100% increase in the population post-baby boomers, but only a 17% increase in the taxpaying population. In addition, people are living longer and health care costs are increasing, all of which has led to entitlement programs that cost more than expected. Medicare, in particular, draws his ire. He calls it the “biggest stack of empty promises” and warns that the program will be bankrupt in nine years.
Pushing Politically Risky Ideas
Later in the white SUV driving the 26 miles to his next stop—202 people are waiting at the Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn—Ryan addresses the political risk of taking on the sacred topic of entitlement reform. “Nobody wants to, and they want to use it as a political weapon against everybody else,” Ryan says from the passenger seat while navigating between the car’s GPS and a well-worn Wisconsin atlas. “If we fear that, then we neglect our own conscience and our constituents. We know what the drivers of our debt are, we know it will drive our economy off a cliff, we know it will precipitate a debt crisis, and knowing that, we have a moral obligation to address it before it gets out of our control.”
The fear of addressing entitlements has led to “political paralysis” among both parties, Ryan says. “We have to get beyond that. We can’t accept this political paralysis as a status quo that can’t be changed. Otherwise, we will, in fact, have a debt crisis and lose control of our economic destiny.”
On the road to Elkhorn (population 9,234), Ryan points out an ethanol plant and takes on another politically risky issue—cleaning up the tax code and ridding it of corporate tax credits. “I’d rather just have lower tax rates than have Washington say, ‘Send us your money, and we’ll send some of it back if you do what we approve of,’ which is effectively what a tax credit is. It’s bad tax policy to have a narrow tax base with a bunch of politically motivated provisions. Close those loopholes in exchange for lowering the corporate tax rate.”
Ryan proposes a corporate and top tax rate of 25% for everyone, including small businesses that file as individuals. “We have a system where we want small businesses to become big businesses. We want to remove tax barriers to help businesses become successful. We have to recognize the fact that competitive countries are lowering tax rates on their businesses; we should do the same. We think the president is going in the wrong direction with a top tax rate of 44.8%.”
Pushing politically risky ideas is his job, Ryan says. “I feel like if you are elected to do a job, you should do it. I sleep very soundly at night and with a clear conscience knowing I’m doing what I think is right to prevent this country from having an economic collapse. It’s risky, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” says Ryan. “You have to be willing to lose this job to be good at this job. If you can’t get that, you’re not leading,” he says before darting out into the rain to present and defend his ideas once more.