Paul Ryan is chairman of the House Budget Committee, an unofficial but influential member of the House Republican leadership, and a loyal ally of Speaker John Boehner. As such, he is counseling “prudence” in dealing with President Obama, which he defines as “choosing your fights wisely and not fighting for the sake of fighting.”
Ryan is also the GOP’s dominant voice on domestic policy. That includes everything from spending, taxes, and entitlements to antipoverty initiatives. Having been Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, Ryan is now one of the most sought-after Republicans for speeches, TV appearances, and fundraising. In this role—and possibly as a presidential candidate in 2016—he is expected to be bold, exciting, and forward-looking. That is, anything but prudent.
Reconciling these two roles won’t be easy, but that’s what Ryan must do for the next year or so. Then, at some point in 2014, he’ll decide between running for president and seeking reelection and, if Republicans hold the House, taking over as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, a post he’s long coveted.
The two jobs—chairman of a key House committee and presidential candidate—aren’t mutually exclusive. But it would be extraordinarily difficult to do both at the same time. So it’s likely Ryan will choose one or the other.
For now, he has a unique position in Congress. He’s the only Republican who might have challenged Boehner for the speakership successfully. But he never considered it. He and Boehner are close allies. Boehner supported Ryan’s creation of a trailblazing budget that included reform of Medicare. It passed the House in 2011, but died in the Democratic Senate.
Two weeks ago, Ryan was crucial to overwhelming GOP support of a new Republican tactic on raising the debt limit. Instead of insisting on spending cuts equal to the amount of new debt, Republicans approved a three-month suspension of the limit along with the requirement that the Senate approve a budget for the first time in four years. Absent a budget, senators wouldn’t receive their congressional pay. In the House, 33 Republicans voted no. Had Ryan opposed the plan, many more would surely have used his cover to justify a vote against it, and embarrassed Boehner.
Ryan’s support was consistent with what he calls “principled prudence.” This notion sounds odd coming from Ryan, known for his fearless approach to politics and policymaking. But with President Obama’s election to a second term, “we’ve had to readjust our expectations,” Ryan tells me.
This means, as I interpret it, that Republicans will exploit what leverage they have but not go beyond it in their demands on Obama. So they’ve given up on spending cuts as part of a debt-limit deal, since they lack the leverage to attain it. And they don’t want to be accused of flirting with a default and weakening an already weak economy.
But Republicans have the ability—the leverage—to determine the duration of an increase in the debt limit. Obama and Democrats would like to extend the limit for longer than three months. But in a mini-victory for Republicans, first the White House, then Senate majority leader Harry Reid caved. There was an added benefit: Democrats were split. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was noisily opposed.
Largely unnoticed was that one of Ryan’s goals—a debate over competing budgets—had been achieved. “When both parties put their solutions on the table, we can have a clear debate,” Ryan says. This is what Reid had avoided for the past four years and Ryan had advocated.
Ryan won’t be excessively limited by prudence in drafting a Republican budget. With Boehner’s encouragement, he intends to draft a budget that reaches balance in 10 years. “We can do this,” he says, though last year’s spending plan didn’t project a balanced budget until 2039. It left many conservatives and Republicans cold.
But Ryan’s budget committee did outline (though not embrace) a quicker path to a balanced budget “under alternative growth scenarios.” That’s code for tax reform to spur economic growth and higher revenues. Assuming faster growth, a balanced budget in 10 years becomes achievable. And it’s a far more thrilling prospect than the conventional but painfully slow route to eliminating the budget deficit that Congressional Budget Office formulas require.
Ryan’s more immediate goal is to “spare the country a debt crisis” by barring a surge in spending and borrowing. It’s a task of pure drudgery, all the more so because he’ll get no help from the president. Obama, Ryan has concluded, doesn’t take the threat of a debt crisis seriously. But if the president prevails on his spending plans, a crisis may suddenly erupt, Ryan believes.
What would it look like? Ryan has assigned the budget committee staff to lay this out in terms the average person can understand. At the least, a crisis would involve higher interest rates, slower growth, more inflation, and a declining standard of living.
In the meantime, Ryan has an agenda that is his alone to pursue—at least among the potential Republican presidential candidates. As an acolyte of Jack Kemp, his first boss when he came to Washington after college two decades ago, he favors a new round of welfare reform and expanded opportunity through economic growth.
When he addressed the Kemp Foundation in December, he talked about a new “vision” of how to reduce poverty. “We must come together and advance new strategies for lifting people out of poverty,” he said, and he’s not waiting for others to answer his call. Ryan has told the budget committee staff to develop new ways of expanding opportunity and helping the poor help themselves.
As a political issue, attacking poverty may not grip most Americans, particularly the Republican rank and file. But it’s a noble cause and sets Ryan apart. And when he talks about poverty, he doesn’t sound prudent at all.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.