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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
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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.

But for Corker and Ryan an important tool in gaining knowledge is talking to experts. As a member of Congress, Ryan says, “you can call any expert in the country and absorb their knowledge. That’s the fun part of the job.” Corker says “the most pleasant surprise [to being a senator] is you have such an opportunity to have access to information. There’s almost no one who won’t take your call. You can delve and delve and delve.”

Both are averse to alienating congressional Democrats with personal attacks. But Corker has bruised some Republican egos with his rapid ascent. “People respect Corker’s ability, but he needs to know his place,” a senior senator told me. Corker believes he does. It’s engaging in negotiations over big issues.

When Bob Corker, successful as a real estate developer, then as mayor of Chattanooga, arrived in Washington, he found that the fallout from a controversial campaign ad had preceded him. The TV spot featured a white woman who said she had met Harold Ford Jr., Corker’s Democratic opponent, at “the Playboy party.” Its tag line: “Harold, call me.” 

Since Ford is African American, the ad was denounced as racist. It had been aired without Corker’s consent by the Republican National Committee and probably did more damage than good to his campaign. In any event, the controversy faded as Corker delved into Senate business.

After five weeks as a senator, Corker had an epiphany. “The whole five weeks were pretty miserable,” he says. He was going to “26, 27, 28 meetings a day, accomplishing nothing. This isn’t what I came here to do.” He needed a “timeout,” Corker says.

Corker decided to go back to his habits as a CEO and mayor. “You focus on a few things that you really drive home. You do this in the mayor’s office. This is what a CEO does, focuses on three or four things and really makes a difference. .  .  . Somehow or other, we’ve ended up being in the middle of things of interest and import.”

Last February 10, Corker got a call from Dodd, whose talks with Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the banking committee, had ended without a compromise on the sweeping expansion of financial regulations. Dodd wanted to negotiate with Corker, though he was a junior member of the committee.

Their daily talks progressed so well the White House and Senate Democrats feared Dodd was conceding too much. When Dodd and Corker went to Central America on a congressional trip—the financial bill wasn’t on their agenda—the alarm grew to the point that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was dispatched to join the trip and make sure Dodd and Corker didn’t come to an agreement.

On March 10, Dodd informed Corker their talks were over. The White House, figuring Republican votes weren’t needed, pulled the plug. Dodd fell in line. The bill took “a very big veer to the left,” Corker says. He and all but three Republicans voted against it.

There’s an epilogue—two really. Last May, two days after the Washington Post reported on White House efforts to spurn a compromise with Republicans, Obama invited himself to the weekly Senate Republican policy lunch and lectured the group on the need for bipartisanship. Corker was furious. “I just want to know when you get up in the morning and come over here for a lunch meeting like this, how do you reconcile that duplicity?” he said, according to accounts of the meeting.

The president bristled and pushed back from the lectern as Corker spoke. Obama’s answer was long but not responsive. He shook hands with senators as he left. “Your actions and your words don’t line up,” Corker told him, according to accounts. (Corker and the president have talked amicably several times since.)

At the financial overhaul hearings, Corker advanced the novel idea of skipping opening statements by senators. “You’d have Chuck Schumer show up” to deliver an opening speech, Corker cites as an example. “He wouldn’t stay to listen to the witnesses.” Dodd called the no-statement idea “the Corker rule” and embraced it for one hearing. But Dodd has retired, and the rule is likely to be retired too. 

Corker’s first serious media notice came during the hearings on bailing out the auto companies. He has a vested interest in the auto industry, having played a part (as mayor and senator) in lobbying Volkswagen to build a plant in Chattanooga. “The most moving and meaningful thing that’s happened to me in my public life was the phone call from Volkswagen” in July 2008 informing him the Chattanooga site had been picked. “I couldn’t even talk,” Corker says. “I was overcome. I told them I’d call them back.”

Following the testimony by auto company CEOs from Detroit in November 2008, Corker made a strenuous effort to learn all he could about the auto industry and its financial woes. He opposed a bailout of General Motors. But, as he put it later, “I determined that if taxpayer monies were going to be used, it would be worth pursuing an approach where the automakers could return to profitability and the American people could be made whole to the greatest extent possible.”

He spent the Thanksgiving holiday with his family in New York, devoting several days to consultations with bond traders, analysts, and experts on the auto business. He talked to company officials and later, once Obama took office, he became friends with the president’s auto czar, Steve Rattner.

From all this, Corker produced a series of recommendations that the White House referred to as the “Corker criteria”—a planned bankruptcy, opening union contracts, turning union health and welfare funds into equity. To sell its plan to keep auto companies in Detroit alive, “the administration had no choice but to make those things happen.” Without them, he says, GM wouldn’t have survived.

Corker dominated the second hearing with auto CEOs, getting Dodd to grant him extra time for his questions. This annoyed other senators. “I was so junior in seniority I was sitting in the cameraman’s lap” at the far edge of the dais.

In December 2009, Corker was summoned by Kyl for a chat in the Senate dining room about missile modernization, which had been neglected for years. “I needed his help,” Kyl told me. “He’s a serious guy when he digs into an issue.”

He visited research facilities at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and Y-12 in Tennessee. He consulted military, CIA, and defense intelligence officials. He discovered, Corker says, that “we’re the only nuclear country in the world that’s not modernizing,” and some of the missile technology is ancient.

With Corker’s assistance, Kyl forced the White House to promise more than $80 billion to upgrade missile forces. The promise was made reluctantly to gain ratification of the new arms control treaty with Russia last month. Kyl says Corker was an important ally. Corker voted for the treaty, Kyl against.

Unlike Corker, who arrived fresh from east Tennessee when elected to the Senate, Paul Ryan is a creature of Washington. It’s as if a smart young academic at the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute had returned to his home state, won a House seat, and became powerful. Ryan, in fact, acts like a think tank expert, hungry for more information and ame-nable to never-ending study.

There’s but one way to become an expert on the budget, Ryan says. “You read it. You literally just read it. Having a knowledge of economic policy and having an economic doctrine is one thing. But understanding the federal budget and its components is another. Not many people do that. It’s fairly laborious. I’m a self-taught person.”

Jack Kemp, another “self-taught guy” according to Ryan, urged him to pursue knowledge and ideas. “Kemp encouraged reading and learning yourself. I also learned a passion for ideas and how they matter.” Ryan worked for Kemp and Bill Bennett, the former drug czar and education secretary, at Empower America, a now defunct think tank, in the 1990s.

Ryan came to Washington after graduating from Miami of Ohio in 1992 to work for Republican senator Robert Kasten of Wisconsin. When Kasten lost later that year, he recommended Ryan to Kemp. As Kemp’s assistant, Ryan met the intellectual leaders of supply-side economics, including Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, Alan Reynolds, and Jude Wanniski. He sounds starstruck in talking about them today. 

Bennett says Ryan hasn’t changed. “He was the exact same person then, only younger.” Bennett remembers Ryan asking him, “Dr. Bennett, I’m thinking about running for Congress. Does this pass the laugh test?” Bennett thought it did. Ryan, elected in 1998, still addresses Bennett as “Dr. Bennett.”

Ryan had many mentors, and he’s quite self-effacing in discussing them. His college economics professor, Richard Hart, urged him to read “the Austrians,” Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. “We did the Laffer Curve in college and we modeled it,” Ryan says. “Keynesianism never sat right with me. It never made sense.”

After Empower America, Ryan worked for Republican senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who taught him “how to be kind to people and how to do well in politics.” Brownback is now governor of Kansas.

From John Kasich, he learned how “to withstand all the pressure surrounding the budget process [and] to dare to be bold in writing a budget.” Kasich, elected governor of Ohio in November, was chairman of the House Budget Committee from 1995 to 2000.

Ryan was on the House Ways and Means Committee while Republican Bill Thomas of California was chairman from 2001 through 2006. Thomas’s advice, according to Ryan: “Bring in as many experts as you can and talk to them for an hour each,” one after the other.

Ryan’s breakthrough as author of the Roadmap was a direct result of his becoming the ranking Republican member on the budget committee in 2007. This gave him a staff of professionals and access to actuaries at the Congressional Budget Office, Treasury Department, and Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“Only after I became a ranking member could I get the actuaries to do all this scoring for me,” Ryan says. “They don’t just do this for everybody in Congress.” The Roadmap would reform Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the tax code, and the health care system. Without credible numbers on its fiscal effects and its cost, Ryan’s plan for restraining spending and wiping out the national debt would be purely abstract and easy to ignore. Now it’s front and center, the most important Republican policy document in decades.

Ryan relishes the company of actuaries. “I’ve gotten to know them,” he says. “It’s actually the highlight of my day when I meet with actuaries. I love those meetings. That’s the most interesting way I spend my time up here.”

The Roadmap was released in May 2008, attracting minimal attention. Its biggest boost, oddly enough, came from Obama a year ago. Speaking to a House Republican issues conference in Baltimore, the president had kind words for the Roadmap, in effect putting it on the political map.

Ryan “has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal,” the president said. “I’ve read it. I can tell you what’s in it. And there are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about because I don’t agree with them.”

When the president said Ryan would give vouchers to current Medicare recipients, Ryan spoke up from the audience. “No,” he said. “No?” Obama said. “People 55 and above .  .  .  ” Ryan responded. He corrected Obama once more, prompting the president to say, “No, I understand, right, right .  .  .  ”

Intentionally or not, Obama’s mention of the Roadmap was a set up. Within days, the plan was attacked by Peter Orszag, then Obama’s budget chief, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and a handful of senior Democratic House members.

A month later, Ryan had a second public encounter with Obama, this time during the seven-hour White House health care summit emceed by the president. With Obama staring at him, Ryan unleashed a devastating critique of the president’s health care proposal. It was riveting. Obama responded on a narrow point that Ryan hadn’t raised, a wise decision on his part. Ryan, in all likelihood, understands the impact of Obamacare better than Obama does.

Just as Obama spoke to Republicans, Ryan crusades in the president’s backyard. (A Wisconsin magazine called him “rebel without a pause.”) As a member of the president’s deficit commission, Ryan was cochair of the working group on health care with Alice Rivlin, President Clinton’s budget chief and an Obama appointee to the commission. She had earlier invited Ryan to speak at the liberal Brookings Institution about the Roadmap.

“It became clear to me our minds weren’t too far apart,” Ryan told me. Their talks led to a highly publicized agreement on a Medicare and Medicaid reform plan lifted largely from the Roadmap (vouchers and block grants). “I see her as a very serious left-of-center policymaker,” Ryan says. They differed on the commission’s report. She voted for it. He didn’t.

An alliance between Ryan and Corker was probably inevitable. Ryan is the more conservative, but both favor smaller government and less spending. In 2010, Corker gave more than 40 presentations, with a slide show, about the nation’s fiscal mess. His so-called CAP Act would bring federal spending down to 20.6 percent of GDP over 10 years. Under the Roadmap, tax revenues would be held to 19 percent of GDP, though spending would vary from year to year.

Ryan and Corker met several years ago as members of a congressional delegation to Colombia. At Corker’s instigation, they met again in November to discuss what both see as America’s fiscal and debt crisis. This is an alliance with a future. Ryan and Corker learn before they speak. And it makes all the difference, even in Washington.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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