Who Is Paul Ryan?

April 9, 2012

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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s name has been tossed around lately more than any other Republican’s, save presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney. Last week the Wisconsin congressman released a 2013 budget proposal that articulates a clear picture of the GOP’s vision for the federal government, and it’s quite a contrast from President Obama’s. The differences are significant. Ryan’s budget cuts $5 trillion more in federal spending, done mostly through spending cuts on social programs and implementing tax cuts on top income earners, intended to induce economic growth. The President’s budget raises taxes on top income earners and leaves social programs mostly untouched.

Ryan is considered an ambitious and deeply intellectual thinker by many of his Republican colleagues. He has consistently advocated for smaller government, critical of what he calls Presidents Obama’s desire to create equal outcomes rather than equal opportunities. In a speech to conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, Ryan articulated his views on American government, stating that the American Idea is about lowering “the hurdles to upward mobility” rather than acting on ill conceived notions of fairness that justify raising taxes on the rich. Despite obvious ideological disagreements, Ryan remains relatively well respected by the other side of the aisle for his intellectual chops.

Paul Ryan made the leap from rising star to household name with the release of his FY 2012 budget proposal, Path to Prosperity. The budget, despite having never made it to the President’s desk, created a major stir in Washington for its ambition deficit reduction proposals, fueled in part by Medicare reform. Under the current system, the government pays directly for seniors’ medical care. Ryan’s budget would have shifted to a system in which participants are given a credit and invited to shop around for insurance, potentially raising the cost of the program for individuals. While it’s long been acknowledged that with the United States’ aging baby boomer population Medicare costs will become unsustainable, proposing reform has been politically risky because it affects the elderly, a large swath of the population that votes in high numbers. Not surprisingly, Democrats hammered Ryan and Republicans who supported the plan, charging them with wanting to “end Medicare,” a claim that was considered the 2011 Lie of the Year by the non-partisan fact-checking website Politifact. The attacks on the budget helped shift public opinion to oppose the Ryan’s Medicare reforms.

Paul Ryan

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan meets with President Obama | Photo Courtesy of White House Photographer Pete Souza via Flickr Commons

Still, Ryan was lauded by many intellectuals and policy elites for taking on such a politically risky issue. Hardly the center for conservative ideas, Time praised Ryan for bringing major issues such as tax reform and changes to entitlements into the public discussion, naming him a “runner up” in the weekly magazine’s annual Person of the Year issue.

Paul Ryan’s pessimistic view of government makes sense given his pulled-himself-up-by-the-bootstraps success story. When Ryan was 16 he found his father dead in bed of a heart attack. Following his father’s death, Ryan went to college then headed to Capitol Hill, working his way up from mail room intern to policy staff while taking a number of side jobs along the way to help pay the bills.

It should also come as no surprise that Ryan is an Ayn Rand enthusiast who allegedly requires his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s most well-known work, in which society’s most productive members refuse to work in response to increasing government control over their economic activities.

Others are unimpressed by the talk of Ryan’s genius. The New Republic named Ryan one of 2011’s most overrated thinkers offering devastating criticism. The article called him “Washington’s idea of a big thinker” and accused him of trying to “impose a radical right-wing agenda” while “his doe-ish eyes and his Midwestern vintage convinced a rapt press corps that he is the ideas man in this age of budgetary woe.”

Paul Ryan’s intellectual capabilities notwithstanding, TNR is not incorrect about his agenda. On Monday at a luncheon hosted by the Associated Press, President Obama ripped the budget proposal as “nothing but thinly veiled social Darwinism.” Ryan’s latest budget disproportionately slashes programs that are used by the poor, with 62 percent of cuts coming from programs designed to help low-income Americans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As Washington Post writer Ezra Klein notes, despite Ryan’s speech to Heritage in October acknowledging government’s role in encouraging social mobility, the cuts this budget would make to the poor–specifically on education, food aid and health care–would seriously undermine their ability to get ahead. Under the guise of deficit reduction, the GOP is seeking to implement the pro-business, small government agenda it has always wanted.

Despite calls for him to enter the GOP presidential primary earlier this year, Paul Ryan declined, citing the lack of ambition. Recently, Ryan was mentioned as a potential VP choice. Though Ryan would certainly fire up the conservative base, many would like to see him stay and rise in the House of Representatives.

Ryan’s dream is to become the chairman on the prestigious House Ways & Means Committee. Ways & Means is considered the most powerful committee in Congress because it has jurisdiction over any bill that involves adjustments to revenue, giving it a voice on any significant piece of legislation: Medicare, Social Security, tax reform, ObamaCare, you name it. At the helm of Ways & Means, Ryan would have immediate access to the most important pieces of policy and a major say in how Congress seeks to address this nation’s budgetary challenges. Whatever the six-term Congressman chooses to do, he will continue to be a vocal and influential conservative voice in government.