It is a good bet that the right-wing lunatics who are taking over the asylum known as the House of Representatives will install one of their own as the next Speaker—quite possibly Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, the Ways and Means Committee Chair and 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee—even though he's saying he doesn't want the top job.
After House GOP failed to elect a speaker last week, Ryan is still the first choice of many Republicans. But don’t believe for a second that he represents a pragmatic or slightly centrist wing of the House Republican spectrum—just because more draconian ideologues in so-called Freedom Caucus are also running. Ryan, as Paul Krugman wrote Monday in the New York Times, is “the best con man they’ve got,” although Krugman predicts that “it will be hard to sustain the con game from the speaker’s chair.”
But oh would a Speaker Ryan try to do exactly that! Krugman writes that today’s Republican Party does not do “real solutions to real probems” and that the national political press corps, in its quest for journalistic balance, ends up portraying as serious a slew of bankrupt GOP notions “as proof that the party does include reasonable people making useful proposals.”
To put it mildly, Ryan is the king of GOP shams—and in his gee-whiz, ah-shucks way, is proud to pretend that there’s still life in the worst ideas and policies perpetrated by Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett, John Kasich and Sam Brownback, all of whom were influential in shaping his views and much of his right-wing policy agenda.
Ryan lays all this out in his 2012 vice-presidential campaign book, The Way Forward: Renewing The American Idea, in which he describes his upbringing, mentors, his election as the second-youngest House member at age 28, and his frustrations with not being able to achieve purist victories in the bills that he’s ended up voting for in Congress. He writes that ex-Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank told him early on to become a specialist, staking out a few issues where his colleagues could trust and follow him.
That’s how we ended up with the supposed GOP spending and budget expert, who as Krugman said, “has been very good at gaming the system, at producing glossy documents that look sophisticated if you don’t understand the issues, at creating false impressions that his plans have been vetted by budget experts.”
Why is Ryan likely to take the bait and become the next speaker? As he wrote in 2012, grousing about compromise after compromise that he had to vote for, “Taken together, these experiences taught me valuable lessons about how the House and Senate operate, and I came away with an even deeper appreciation for the role of congressional leadership. Who holds the top post really matters because the decisions they make at the outset determine the votes that ever member has to take and how much good we can achieve for the country and our fellow citizens.”
What follows are six examples of the “good we can achieve” if Ryan becomes speaker.
1. Cap and Privatize Social Security. On the Democratic side of the aisle, there is a growing consensus—in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail—that Social Security payments are insufficient for the tens of millions of households for whom they comprise more than 50 percent of their income. Ryan holds exactly the opposite view.
It even goes deeper than noting that Ryan was the primary inspiration behind President George W. Bush’s ill-fated attempt to privatize Social Security early in his second term, where Bush took his advice and proposed that a portion of one’s Social Security savings should be invested in Wall Street-managed accounts. Ryan—who as a teenager received the program’s survivor benefits after his father died at age 55—has campaigned steadily for years on capping expenditures for Social Security and other entitlements. In his first House race, his Democratic challenger proposed doing exactly what many Democrats today are proposing—lifting the cap that only taxes the first $118,500 of one’s income for the Social Security. “Lydia Spottswood wanted to raise taxes, and I wanted to lower them,” Ryan wrote, hiding behind the no-new-taxes mantra while once again letting the richest Americans off the hook for paying a fairer share into the program.
2. Cut and privatize other ‘entitlement” programs. Ryan likes to boast that he has had the guts to grab the other “third rail” of American politics, by suggesting spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, which are the federal and state health care programs for seniors and the poor, respectively. That’s not a new line in the Republican right-wing orthodoxy, especially among those who believe that federal debt will destroy America from within.
However, it’s noteworthy where Ryan’s views are coming from—the same fiscal policy architects that inspired Ronald Reagan’s infamous tax cuts that initially were a boon to corporate America and the rich before the loss of federal revenue exploded the red ink. Bill Clinton’s presidency, after Reagan, lowered that debt, but it grew again under GOP leadership, namely George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war of choice in Iraq.
Of course, these “pro-growth, supply-side conservatives” will never admit that there are myriad governmental programs that the public needs—and wants to see run efficiently. Instead, they believe that tax cuts will always ignite economic growth and that jobs and prosperity created will trickle down and raise every American’s fortunes. The “they” in this deluded equation and cadre, who are Ryan’s mentors, are ex-Wisconsin Sen. Bob Kasten, Congressman Jack Kemp—who, Ryan writes, “was famous for convincing President Reagan of the merits of supply-side economics,” Bill Bennett, Vin Weber and Sam Brownback. Brownback, now the Kansas governor, is the latest supply-sider to cut taxes (in his state) while promising growth, only to see revenues vanish. In Kansas, the result is state government spending has been dramatically cut across the board, hurting public schools, health-care, social programs, law enforcement and more. These “free-market” ideologues will never admit that as Reagan cut taxes, America’s wealthy got richer while wages stagnated for most middle- and working-class Americans.
“The agenda was simple,” Ryan eagerly writes. “Empower Americans in every possible way: Lower taxes so they could keep more of their paychecks. Give parents more choices about where their kids could go to school. And this was closest to Jack’s heart—help the poor by reforming welfare so they could move up the ladder and out of poverty.”
3. Privatize K-12 public education. Here, too, is another area where Ryan has drunk a right-wing cocktail that blinds him to his upbringing. The young man whose family lived on Social Security survivor benefits now wants to cut Social Security or let Wall Street skim billions in fees as it gambles with its funds. The young man who touted his modest suburban upbringing in Janesville, a small city where the major employer was the auto industry and where he went to public school, supports charter schools—where scarce taxpayer funds are allocated to create a parallel system of K-12 schools, run by private companies, inside the traditional public school system. Ryan writes that only charter schools offer hope to impoverished inner-city youths, even though there is a growing body of national research that finds a great many of the 6,500 charter schools in the country do not do better than nearby traditional public schools.
4. Support religious liberty for Catholics and anti-abortion. It’s notable, also, that Ryan, who described himself as a “lapsed Catholic” after college, credits Brownback—then a congressman; he was his legislative director—with his return to Catholicism. At this time, Ryan described Brownback as a religious “seeker” who had converted from Methodist to evangelical Christianity. (During Brownback’s Senate race, he converted again to Catholicism). A big part of the privatized school movement is so-called voucher schools, where taxpayers foot the bill for educating children at religious schools. This is another area where Ryan is aligned with Christian conservatives, who also believe that Catholics are victimized by a liberal American mainstream and deserve special legal protections—so-called religious liberty bills.
Needless to say, Ryan is also extremely anti-abortion. As Mother Jonesreported when he was Mitt Romney’s running mate, “Over his career in the House, GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan has endorsed a number of measures that would limit or completely bar abortion in the United States… The full extent of the measures he’s endorsed is breathtaking, and includes cosponsoring a measure that would allow hospitals to deny women access to an abortions even if their life is in immediate danger.”
5. Anti-union, anti-government. Another area where Ryan rejects his own upbringing concerns unions and the partnership between big employers and local government. Ryan writes that his upbringing during the heyday of General Motors and Detroit auto industry was a charmed time. “Growing up, no one ever really talked about money or class. It was generally assumed that everyone fell into one of two categories: “middle-class” or “would-be soon.”
The backbone of that prosperity was the auto industry, whose unionized workers lived in his small city of Janesville. Ryan ignores that, but instead describes how the collapse of Detroit’s municipal finances turned him into a fiscal conservative. His book’s account is astounding, completely ignoring the decisions by auto executives that led to the collapse of their industry but instead blaming Detroit’s government for over-spending.
“The city’s government grew beyond the community’s ability to pay for it,” Ryan writes, compressing 60 years of history that culminated in a 2013 bankruptcy filing. “What it cost to keep paying those [government] salaries was only the tip of the iceberg. Many city government positions came with generous retirement and health-care benefits, the result of concessions made to public-sector unions over the years.”
Ryan concludes, “The problem is that as a country we’re pursuing a lot of the same policies they got Detroit into trouble. We’re spending too much and living off borrowed money. We’re growing government at an unsustainable rate, often at the expense of civil society, and individual freedom. And we’re putting government, not society, at the center of a vision that guides our priorities and policies.”
6. A radical in waiting. But Ryan is not just a Reagan acolyte who romanticizes a record of failed economic policies. He is a right-wing radical who writes how he has long been very frustrated by Republicans who cannot stop spending federal dollars while falsely claiming to be conservatives. This suggests that he is very much in synch with the 60 “Freedom Caucus” members who have driven John Boehner from the speaker’s post.
“For much of my early years in Congress, big-spending Republicans dominated our caucus,” he writes. “They held several of the congressional chairmanships and some of out leadership posts. If the growth of government, constant overspending, and a weakness for earmarks are the measure, these Republicans were indistinguishable from Democrats.”
“Those of us who argued for fiscal restraint often found ourselves in the minority of the majority,” he continued. “We didn’t have the numbers we needed to right the ship. Our only leverage was our vote—and often that wasn’t much leverage at all, since we were increasingly given bad choices and forced to vote on the lesser of two evils.”
If Ryan becomes the next Speaker of the House, you can be sure he will first try to ensure there are no “lesser of two evils” proposals emerging from the House—exactly what the right-wig purists want. Forget compromise. Forget negotiation. And forget governing. Americans will soon see “how much good” the House GOP can “achieve for the country and our fellow citizens.”