The Magazine

Young, Wonky, and Proud of It

Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan makes waves.

Mar 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 26 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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"AM I TOTALLY BORING, or what?" asks Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Styling himself a "big supply-sider," "a policy guy," and a "political entrepreneur," Ryan happily holds forth on some of the driest topics Congress deals with--tax reform, market-based revamping of Social Security and Medicare, and his latest pet project, a redesign of the budget process. His commitment to this carefully selected set of reforms has made him an up-and-coming policy wonk on the Republican side.

Years after the Republican Revolution of 1994 fizzled, Ryan, a onetime staffer for Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, still proudly carries the supply-side banner. He successfully lobbied for a seat on the Ways and Means committee two years ago, and has since demonstrated single-minded dedication to his economic agenda.

Just starting his third term at the tender age of 33, Ryan is young but devoid of Gen-X cynicism. He describes his marathon "listening tours," for example, as "a total rush," projecting a conviction about their usefulness that even the most seasoned politician often fails to muster.

Ryan refers to the federal entitlements he has set out to reform as "the last great vestiges of the welfare state." Entitlements make up two-thirds of the federal budget, he points out, and "have promoted a collectivist mentality, created a generation of dependency on the government, and eroded financial independence and self-reliance."

Though others in the House might talk this way in floor speeches, few are as caught up in the underlying principles as Ryan. He calls Friedrich Hayek's "The Fatal Conceit" "just a good ol' classic," and says things like, "I grew up on Hayek and [Ludwig von] Mises" at the place in a conversation where most people would say something like, "I grew up on a farm."

Before his career on Capitol Hill took off, Ryan got a BA in economics and planned to head to the University of Chicago for a Ph.D. But election to Congress put graduate school on hold.

His fondness for considering the big picture, however, led him to found the Prosperity Caucus with his "best friend in Congress," Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. "We do a lot of briefings, a lot of dissemination of literature. We noticed that the green-eyeshade austerity wing of the party was afraid of class warfare. They fear increases in the debt, and they were overlooking issues of growth, opportunity, and free markets."

Ryan emphasizes that he does not play professor at Prosperity Caucus meetings. "The point is to provide colleagues a breather to digest economic issues," he says. "The day-to-day details of [congressmen's] jobs are really easy to get caught up in, and they don't get the chance to think long term, to think visionary, to think about broader economic principles."

His staff, however, gets the benefit of his pedagogical streak. "I give out 'Atlas Shrugged' [by Ayn Rand] as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well, . . . I try to make my interns read it." Ryan "looked into" Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, when he was young, he says, but he is a Christian and reads the Bible frequently.

He's also the father of a one-year-old girl, with a baby on the way in June, quite a change for a man who arrived in the nation's capital a single guy. Back then, the only time he took off, he says, was to go hunting and fishing. His official biography notes that he "is a member of the Janesville Y.M.C.A., Janesville Bowmen Inc., and Ducks Unlimited," and that he's "homesick" for the Wisconsin woods. Lately, he has been trying to take Sundays off and "a Friday or Saturday for a date night" in addition to his hunting forays.

"I'm lucky," he says of his wife of two years, Janna. She is "very cool" about his schedule, and "is so helpful to me, in making me a better person, a better listener especially." He describes fatherhood as "a totally awesome, joyful thing." Being away from the family is tough, he says. "It tugs at you."

This kind of enthusiasm is hardly unusual for newlyweds and new parents, but Ryan is just as fired up about his professional concerns. Almost without taking a breath, he spills out this mind-numbing, if rosy, picture of a world with budget process reform:

"I have a bill that rewrites the entire federal budget process and how Congress taxes and spends. The rules, which are based on the 1974 Budget Act, are designed to keep spending and taxing high. They promote pork-barreling and fiefdom-building. The rules are biased against those who would limit government and reduce taxes and clean up our tax system. My bill systematically changes the rules to take out that bias in the procedures of Congress so that we are at least neutral with respect to honest attempts to re-limit government, take pork out of spending bills, and reduce taxes permanently. I have changed the Byrd Rule so that we can get permanent tax relief. I changed the way the PAYGO scorecard works so that you cut and eliminate discretionary spending boondoggles to pay for tax reduction. I changed the way appropriation bills are designed and written so you can cut out the extraneous stuff and cut out the pork. I changed emergency spending so that it is tightly designed around what an emergency truly is, so that it is not just another convenient vehicle to put in spending outside of budget caps. I changed the way budget resolutions are written so that it is binding from the beginning of the process. That way you don't bring it towards brinkmanship at the end of the session like we do every year, and then we just spend our way out of town."

Ryan is not bashful, either, about taking credit where it's due. He is proud of his unusual career trajectory. He mentions that when he came on as Kemp's staff economist, he was "hired pretty young to do that." His chest puffs out a little when he recites, "In the last four years we have helped 9,500 constituents through individual problems with the federal government." And he recounts with obvious satisfaction the story of the first amendment he wrote that made it into a bill, back when he was a staffer working for Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas on immigration.

But his use of the first-person singular is not Clintonesque. He doesn't talk about his feelings; he talks about his work. He talks about the possibility of a world full of "self-reliant and productive individuals."

This vision has led him to focus on a specific set of policy initiatives. "You can't be a generalist and get anything done around here," says Ryan. In addition to his budget process bill, which was introduced just weeks ago and is now being marked up, he is using his seat on Ways and Means to push the whole series of market-based reforms.

"We've shifted the debate considerably," says Ryan, optimistically, when asked how well he has succeeded on his issues. "When we write tax bills, I focus on being rear guard action in Ways and Means to protect pro-growth policies and make the arguments for growth."

Ryan has "no plans to be a lifer, an old bull." But he says "if the people of Wisconsin will allow" him, he'll stick around in Congress until he "gets a few things done." He will have succeeded, he says, when he "turns entitlements into programs that can actually encourage individualism and self-reliance and financial freedom."

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.