House Speaker Paul Ryan announced on Wednesday that he will follow so many of his Republican colleagues’ lead and leave Capitol Hill when his term expires at year’s end. He said he’s doing it for family reasons, but for Democrats itching to overthrow the GOP majority, the skies – and congressional maps – never looked bluer.
Word of Ryan’s planned departure set off the expected round of exit applause (from GOP officials and conservative think tankers) and victory laps (by Democratic officials, candidates and liberal think tankers). A forensic examination of his relationship with President Donald Trump, whom Ryan has supported in all the meaningful ways during these past 14 months and three weeks, commenced immediately.
If this is a time for drafting first editions of Ryan’s congressional legacy, two clear narrative lines emerge from the thicket of instant reactions.
The first and most consequential is rooted in what Ryan described at a Wednesday press briefing as his success in “normalizing entitlement reform.” Put plainly, he was talking about Republican efforts to make it politically acceptable, and electorally sustainable, for lawmakers to push for the privatization or scaling back of welfare state programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
During Ryan’s nearly two decades on Capitol Hill, conservative messaging around those policy goals has become more refined and, until the current Congress took aim at Obamacare last year and launched a progressive revival, a political “third rail” slowly being starved of voltage.
That pursuit has animated Ryan for his entire political life, from the time he was “drinking at a keg,” to his first election in 1998, and for the last 18 years, as he drew up slash-and-burn budget plans – aka “The Roadmap” – and successfully sold himself as Washington’s wonk-in-chief, a serious person with serious ideas in a chamber and town increasingly resistant to both. Former President George W. Bush, in his second term, even proposed a version of Ryan’s social security plan, which quickly sank along with Bush’s political fortunes.
By 2012, though, The New Yorker had installed Ryan as leader of the Republican Party’s “attack-and-propose faction.” That year, then-presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney picked Ryan to be his running mate. The campaign stage didn’t suit the low-key congressman, who struggled to defend his fiscal analysis when faced with more pugnacious scrutiny. A convention speech riddled with factual flubs, along with an odd anecdote about a fudged marathon time, sullied his Boy Scout brand.
Romney’s bid failed, of course, but Ryan easily retained his seat in Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District despite and, after Tea Party members finally inspired his predecessor, John Boehner, to quit in September 2015, Ryan, with House Republicans at an impasse, assumed the most powerful job in Congress.
Whether or not one buys into Ryan’s portrayal as a reluctant leader, a dutiful party man who would’ve been happier hammering away at a calculator as chair of the House Ways and Means or Budget committees, the timing of his ascent was ironic. As he settled in to the speakership, Donald Trump was well on his way to bulldozing the Republican presidential primary field. Ryan’s political and ideological allies, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (an early favorite who dropped out months before the first ballots were cast) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, were paved under Trump’s populist path.
Trump’s general election victory in 2016 put Ryan in a tricky position. At least, that was the story at the time. But whatever concerns he might have had, Ryan stayed faithful to his agenda. After nearly two decades in Washington, he would lead a Republican House, working alongside a Republican Senate, with a Republican president in the Oval Office, ready to sign off on their work. As for the tweets, well, Ryan had the good sense to not see them.
Ryan stood by Trump and, for his loyalty, put the GOP in a position to deliver what will be remembered as his most consequential achievement in politics: the 2017 Republican tax cuts.
Their passage along mostly party lines delivered a massive, permanent reduction to corporate rates, which dropped nearly 15% points from 35%, cut levies on individual and pass-through income (provisions that will expire at the end of 2025) and set the stage for potential future rollbacks in social spending. The net effect will be a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and working classes to the wealthy.
Equally important is the projection made by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in its recently published 10-year budget and economic outlook. The CBO estimates the US will run trillion-dollar deficits indefinitely starting in 2020.
The driving factor?
Decreased revenue from 2017’s tax cuts and the cost of the subsequent budget deal, a compromise passed with Ryan’s blessing, and signed, after some grousing, by Trump.
Ryan noted in his press conference that he’d only finished half the job – tax reform.
“More work needs to be done,” he said, “and it really is entitlements.”
Thanks to Ryan, and GOP policies that created a question now in need of solving, their work will be that much easier.