Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) isn’t saying anything about the vice-presidential nomination that he hasn’t said over and over again. His attitude these days is that it is somebody’s else decision down the road, and the chatter only takes the focus off the substance of the presidential race.
So when I sat down with Ryan in a conference room across the hall from the House Budget Committee hearing room, we instead talked about Europe, the defense sequestration cuts, immigration and the presidential race.
We start with the big news this week from Greece and France’s elections. Liberals are accusing Ryan of preaching the same “austerity” supposedly favored by defeated European governments. He exclaims, “We’re not doing austerity! We need to preempt austerity and get our fiscal problems solved on our own terms.” Countering that in real austerity you won’t have the luxury of “exempting seniors from changes” in entitlement programs as he has proposed, he tries to put his plan in context: “We’re growing spending at 3 percent instead of 4 1/2 percent to allow the economy to grow and to get the debt [to a point that it is] containable.”
He says his liberal critics are attempting to “change reality to fit a narrative:‘If only a few people paid a few more dollars in taxes...’” That’s not only dishonest, but, he says, “It will lull us into complacency.” And, he fears, that attitude will therefore make it all the more difficult to tackle our problems.
We moved on to the budget sequestration. The exercise is to come up with cuts that would substitute for the defense sequestration cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act and the failure of the supercommittee. As only a wonk like Ryan can say, he cheerily remarks on the reconciliation process going on across the hall: “I’m enjoying it.” He makes the point that the last time reconciliation was used for its intended purpose — budget reduction — was 2005 when $40 billion was cut over five years. “We are doing more than three times that.”
Ryan reminds me, “Defense Secretary [Leon] Panetta said [the defense cuts] would be ‘devastating.’” So the House is going through the budget, focusing especially on so-called mandatory spending. This isn’t just an academic exercise, Ryan says: “The purpose is to be specific with the American people.” As for alternatives to sequestration, Ryan notes that the Office of Management and Budget, the Senate and the White House “have none.” He stresses that in putting up a concrete substitute for sequestration of defense funds, “We are doing what leaders do.”
That entails coming up with cuts of 405 percent (over five years) of the total of one year of sequestration cuts. He explains that much of this is obtained by removing duplicative programs and practicing good government. For example, currently there are 47 overlapping job training programs spread across 9 different government agencies. On food stamps, Ryan would block grant the program for greater efficiency as was done with welfare reform in the 1990’s. Food stamp spending has increased by 270%. Under Ryan’s reforms to curb waste, pair back the failed stimulus, and end duplication food stamp spending would still be 260 % higher in 2013 than in 2002..
Ryan says his proposal does include some basics: “You need to be eligible in order to receive food stamps.” In other cases, Ryan’s proposal would shut down what he calls “slush funds,” for example the bailout monies in the Dodd-Frank legislation, and shut down inefficient bureaucracies (e.g. the Office of Financial Research) or bloated ones that don’t target those in need (e.g. federal flood insurance).
Ryan is candid that after the House does its work “It will go on the shelf.” Nevertheless, he adds, “it will show we are prepared to lead.” And he doesn’t rule out the possibility some of this could be accomplished in the lame duck session (“It depends who wins.”)
As for the presidential race, he says he has been in touch with the Romney campaign: “They’re pleased to see we are leading. They are pleased to see we have put out specifics.” Ryan says the president’s rhetoric is “so politically crass. We’re used to it. We’re used to the demagoguery.” He continues, “I really think people will grow tired of it. It’s cynical divide- and-conquer politics,” in contrast to Romney’s “uplifting, unifying message”and totally different vision is precisely the way to go. Romney is putting out a pro-growth, pro-free market vision. Ryan says that in contrast to Romney, “The president thinks life is a zero sum game. He thinks the economy is a zero sum game.” If someone gets ahead, in Obama’s view, it was because someone else got less or was exploited. Ryan says, “That’s not how it works.”
In part two of the interview, Ryan talks about immigration reform, entitlement reform and the choice in the 2012 election.