Rep. Ryan pushes budget reform, and his party winces

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Monday, August 2, 2010; A01

Viewing him as a rising star in the party, Republicans in Congress often talk up Rep. Paul Ryan as a potential governor, senator or House leader. The lanky, youthful-looking congressman from Wisconsin has begged off, citing his young children and limited desire to spend all his time raising campaign money.

Instead, Ryan is running a campaign of a different sort, one his party has so far refused to adopt: He is determined to persuade colleagues to get serious about eliminating the national debt, even if it means openly broaching overhauls of Medicare and Social Security.

He speaks in apocalyptic terms, saying the debt is "completely unsustainable" and warning that "it will crash our economy." He urges fellow politicians, and voters, to stop pretending that this problem will go away on its own.

He administers his sermons with evangelical zeal. He will go anywhere and talk to anyone who will listen. When he is not writing op-eds and appearing on television, he can often be found speaking to liberal and conservative audiences alike about his "Roadmap for America's Future," a plan he says would fix the problem.

"Political people always tell their candidates to stay away from controversy," said Ryan, 40. "They say, 'Don't propose anything new or bold because the other side will use it against you.' "

While he does not name the "political people," they no doubt include many Republican colleagues, who, even as they praise Ryan for his doggedness, privately consider the Roadmap a path to electoral disaster. Unlike most politicians of either party, he doesn't speak generically about reducing spending, but he does acknowledge the very real cuts in popular programs that will be required to bring down the debt.

His ideas are provocative, to say the least. They include putting Medicare and Medicaid recipients in private insurance plans that could cost the government less but potentially offer fewer benefits; gradually raising the retirement age to 70; and reducing future Social Security benefits for wealthy retirees.

Of the 178 Republicans in the House, 13 have signed on with Ryan as co-sponsors.

Ryan's proposals have created a bind for GOP leaders, who spent much of last year attacking the Democrats' health-care legislation for its measures to trim Medicare costs. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has alternately praised Ryan and emphasized that his ideas are not those of the party.

Ryan has not helped to make it easy for his leaders. He is a loyal Republican, but he is also perhaps the GOP's leading intellectual in Congress and occasionally seems to forget that he is a politician himself.

At a recent appearance touting the Roadmap at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, someone asked Ryan why more conservatives weren't behind his budget plan. "They're talking to their pollsters," Ryan answered, "and their pollsters are saying, 'Stay away from this. We're going to win an election.' "

His remarks illustrate the tension among Republicans over their fall agenda. Some strategists say the GOP should focus on attacking the Democrats; others want the party to offer a detailed governing plan.

The discomfort some Republicans feel for Ryan's proposals goes beyond November. If Republicans were to take control of Congress next year, Ryan will rise to chairman of the Budget Committee. He could use the position to hold colleagues accountable for runaway budget deficits and make it more difficult for fellow Republicans -- and Democrats -- to stuff bills with expensive projects that add to the problem.

In an interview, Ryan played down any tensions between himself and GOP leaders, saying both parties are to blame for the lack of action on controversial issues, such as Social Security.

He is one of six congressional Republicans on a commission that President Obama created to propose solutions to the debt; but he is worried that neither party will be eager to adopt the commission's ideas because of politics. He acknowledged causing his party some discomfort. Democrats, he said, are "going to try and wrap my Roadmap around people's necks."

At the same time, some Republicans, few of them politicians, praise the bold proposals. Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, an influential conservative magazine, recently wrote a piece titled, "Think Big: Republicans should embrace Paul Ryan's Road Map."

Ryan, who represents his home town of Janesville, a small city in southern Wisconsin, does not fit the picture of a typical congressman. He is cerebral and slips easily into academic jargon; he grew up with plans to be an economist. But Ryan worried that his ideas would stay buried in unread journals and decided to run for office, so he would have a larger stage and a chance to make policy instead of writing about it.

He was elected to the House in 1998, at the age of 28. He gained attention for his expertise in fiscal and budget matters. Four years ago, Republicans passed over several more senior lawmakers to make Ryan the top member of the GOP on the Budget Committee.

In 2008, he put out the first version of his budget-balancing plan. It has grown into a voluminous document that includes page after page of minutely detailed charts and tables, and includes a 75-year analysis of how the changes he proposes would affect the federal debt.

Ryan is no moderate, and his proposal reflects that. It would slow the expected growth in benefits for many Social Security recipients and would effectively give people on Medicare and Medicaid income-based vouchers to buy private insurance, bringing down the costs of those programs. Democrats say the vouchers would leave many seniors unable to afford coverage.

At the same time, Ryan's plan includes ideas that are attractive to conservatives but do little to reduce the deficit initially, such as allowing people under 55 to put their Social Security tax payments into personal accounts (similar to what President George W. Bush proposed in 2005). The ideas have sparked much interest on op-ed pages and in think tanks. Liberals oppose the private accounts and other parts of the plan, but Democrats and Republicans alike praise Ryan as one of the few members of either party to offer a fix for costly entitlements.

Alice M. Rivlin, an economic policy adviser in the Clinton administration, said to Ryan at the Brookings event, "I think absolutely you've done a huge service in getting [the plan] out there."

Last year, during the health-care debate, Ryan and a few colleagues tried to push a comprehensive health-care bill, modeled on the Roadmap proposal, that would remake Medicaid. But other Republicans viewed Ryan's plan as too radical, and they worried that conservative and independent voters would turn against it as they had against the Democrats' proposals. The GOP offered a bare-bones plan that would not have radically altered the health-insurance system or dramatically expanded coverage.

As the November midterm elections approach, GOP leaders have pledged to put out a "Commitment to America" plan outlining what they would do if Republicans regain control of the House. They say it will include specific details on policy issues. A few Republicans have already voiced concerns that the document will be more about political positioning than policy.

"Any plan that does not include a recognition of the entitlement problem is not credible," said Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a Ryan ally.

Ryan said he does not think that voters would punish the GOP for shunning attack politics and for speaking plainly about the country's problems. He notes his own political success: He won reelection in 2008 with 62 percent of the vote despite coming from a district and a state that voted for Obama.

"It's really important, I think, not to run campaigns on some vague platitudes and rip down the other party, to hopefully win an election by default," he said. "You have to win an election by acclamation, by aspiration, by telling people who you are and what you are going to do, and then go do it once you get there."

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