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
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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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