The Magazine

Knowledge Is Power

Paul Ryan and Bob Corker are unusual members of Congress. They know a lot.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Paul Ryan was 28 when he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1999 as a Republican freshman from Wisconsin. Eager for advice, he sought the counsel of dozens of veteran House members on how to be an effective congressman. The most consequential advice came from an unexpected source, Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts. It was guidance for a committed conservative from one of Washington’s leading liberals.

Knowledge Is Power

Paul Ryan / Bob Corker

Reuters / Newscom

And it was quite simple: Be a specialist, not a generalist. As they talked over breakfast in the members’ dining room, Frank went into considerable detail. “Pick two or three issues and really focus on them rather than being a yard wide and an inch deep,” Ryan says Frank told him. Do your homework. Concentrate on committee work. Study. If you do, you’ll be in the room when bills are written.

Ryan has followed that advice rigorously. His motto is, “Inquire, inquire, inquire, read, read, read.” He has made himself an expert on the budget, taxes, and health care. Ryan knows more about the federal budget than anyone else on Capitol Hill and talks about it more fluently. Because of this, he was a shoo-in for chairman of the House Budget Committee last week, elevated over colleagues with more seniority. He will draft the House version of the 2012 budget, a document the Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House will have to take as seriously as the budget proposal of the executive branch, which the Obama administration is set to release early next month.

There’s an old Washington adage that Ryan personifies almost perfectly: Knowledge is power. He’s become enormously influential because he knows so much more than his colleagues on a few issues. And they happen to be the most critical issues in 2011—spending, the deficit, the national debt, taxes, Obama’s health care plan, the size and reach of government.

In the Senate, Bob Corker, the only new Republican elected in 2006, figured out on his own that knowledge creates leverage in Congress. By 2008, he was a major player on the auto industry rescue and reform of financial market regulations, though he wound up voting against both of them. Over the past year, he started from scratch to learn about America’s decaying missile force and grabbed a significant role in passage of the arms control treaty with Russia last month. And in his bid to cut government spending and reduce debt, he’s found an ally outside the Senate—Ryan.

Even with the addition of Corker and Ryan, the roll call of members of Congress, past and present, whose mastery of complex issues brought power and prominence is remarkably short. Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona is Senate minority whip in good measure because he knows more about more subjects, understands them more thoroughly, and discusses them more and with more clarity than any other senator.

Like Ryan today, a young congressman from Michigan, David Stockman, emerged as an authority on the budget and spending in the late 1970s and was appointed White House budget director by President Reagan. For four decades until his death in 1971, Democratic senator Richard Russell of Georgia gained power from knowledge of issues, especially military defense.

Corker and Ryan, while both self-made congressional powerhouses, are quite different in their approach to legislative politics. Corker, 58, is primarily an inside dealmaker who, according to Nina Easton of Fortune, “has built his professional and political career on negotiating with people who don’t always share his views.” Ryan, now 40, is the Republican party’s premier public thinker on domestic policy. He’s also happy, as a legislator, to work with Democrats.

Corker is short and intense. Ryan is tall and easygoing. Corker likes to negotiate in private, as he did for 30 days last winter with Democratic senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut on regulating Wall Street. He excels at the inside game. Ryan usually plays an outside game, crusading for his Roadmap for America’s Future, a comprehensive plan for shrinking government and reviving private initiative.

Ryan is a voracious reader of books and articles. In Washington, he lives in his office in the Longworth House Office Building, sleeping on a rollaway bed. He normally spends one to two hours a night reading. He handed out copies of the free market classic Economics in One -Lesson by Henry Hazlitt to Republican freshmen. “Most of them have already read The Road to Serfdom,” Ryan says.

“I hate to say it,” Corker says, “but I don’t read many books.” He’s disciplined himself to read four newspapers—the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post—on his Kindle “every single morning and doing that first. That, plus boring white papers.” He had six of them with him when he flew back to Washington last week.

Recent Blog Posts