House Speaker Paul Ryan steps down in January after a twenty year career in Congress with one major accomplishment – a massive overhaul of the tax code.
But the policy wonk and Republican thought leader departs without meaningful action on the agenda that led to his rise as a national Republican figure – reforming entitlement programs and tackling the nation’s debt crisis.
The timing of Ryan’s move to announce his plans Wednesday stunned many of his GOP colleagues, many of whom expected he wouldn’t talk about stepping aside until after the midterm elections in November.
But Ryan reminded reporters and colleagues it was a job he stepped into reluctantly after his predecessor John Boehner’s own surprising decision to retire in the fall of 2015.
“This is a job that does not last forever,” the Wisconsin congressman said. “You realize that you hold the office for just a small part of our history, so you better make the most of it. It’s fleeting, and that inspires you to do big things.”
Ryan’s “big thing” was his longtime goal to transform the large federal health care and retirement programs in order to cut back bloated federal spending. He spent years warning that the debt would cripple the nation’s economic outlook. Most notably, he proposed that the current Medicare system shift into one modeled on private care rather than a government one-size-fits-all program.
Policy pushes and pushback
During his tenure as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he methodically rolled out detailed proposals and his expertise on economic issues was one of the reasons the 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney picked him as a running mate. He went from showcasing PowerPoint presentations for his colleagues in Capitol Hill hearing rooms to traveling the country and gaining a national profile.
Democrats repeatedly tried to use his Medicare proposal as a campaign issue, even making one political ad that featured someone who looked like Ryan pushing someone in a wheelchair off a cliff. Under his framework, the government would no longer directly pay bills for senior citizens in the program. Instead, recipients would choose a plan from a list of private providers, which the federal government would subsidize.
Ryan also argued that Medicaid, which provides health care for the disabled and the poor, should be administered by the states by sending them block grants to spend in the ways each governor decided best fit needs of its citizens.
Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican, who now chairs the budget panel, told reporters that these kind of major reforms remain “an elusive target” for the party. The GOP-controlled House was able to approve them as part of budget resolutions, but they failed to gain traction beyond those votes.
“The timing is never right for it,” Womack said. “It’s either a brand new administration or an upcoming election, or another transformational piece of legislation that has occupied our time.”
A new report from the Congressional Budget Office showed that deficits under the GOP-controlled Congress are growing larger instead of diminishing as Ryan and others pledged they would. The nonpartisan report said that the deficits over a trillion dollars will start in 2020, two years earlier than what the CBO predicted just 10 months ago. In ten years, CBO projected the deficit will be over $1.5 trillion. This is due to both the tax bill enacted last year and the spending bill approved just last month.
President Donald Trump effectively shot down Ryan’s dream of making headway on entitlement reforms. He campaigned against touching Medicare and Social Security and reiterated he had no desire to change course when he took office.
On Wednesday, the House speaker admitted that there was more work to do on reshaping those large federal programs. Ryan touted that the House did pass a repeal of Obamacare and lamented the fact the Senate couldn’t get that through.
He boasted that “normalizing entitlement reform, pushing the cause of entitlement reform” was something he was proud he accomplished through pushing his budgets and his record as speaker.
Boehner pointed out in his statement Wednesday that Ryan’s proposals became the centerpiece of the GOP’s economic agenda.
“His budgets during my own speakership showed the American people our conservative vision for addressing the drivers of our debt and restoring a path to prosperity for our children,” the former Ohio congressman said.
Ryan has said for years that serving as chairman of the tax-writing committee was always his dream job. He held that post when Boehner retired and he was propelled into the top leadership post.
Ryan said Wednesday that the tax bill was “something that I’ve been working on in my entire adult life.”
From staffer to speaker
His colleagues and allies outside of the Capitol say Ryan grew into the role of speaker and quickly learned how to work within the various factions of the GOP conference to reach consensus.
Cesar Conda, a former Hill aide and ally of Ryan’s, said that he’s watched him evolve over the years from staffer to speaker, gaining momentum and skills that the policy wonk didn’t possess in the earlier days.
“He has evolved from a strictly policy-oriented legislator who was just concerned about policy X and policy Y to someone who had to count votes and put together coalitions,” Conda said. “That wasn’t one of his strengths going into the job but he learned it pretty quickly.”
Ryan downplayed any splits he’s had with Trump during a session with a small group of reporters in his Capitol office Wednesday, saying that the opportunity to enact major policy changes gave him perspective on his priorities as speaker.
“The tweet of the moment pales in comparison to the big policy changes that I really believe are gonna make a big difference in people’s lives, are going to move us in the right direction,” he said. “Those things completely overshadow the frustrations of the day or of the moment.”
GOP lawmakers spent Wednesday praising Ryan, and also pointing to the tax legislation as his chief legacy.
“He got it done. He got it done in a real way. This tax bill has been transformational,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida. “I think history will record Speaker Ryan as a very effective, transformational speaker.”
CNN’s Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.