It comes as no surprise that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will move to chair the Ways and Means Committee in 2015, provided he and the GOP win in 2014. Privately, his staff has talked most of this year about the potential move and their expectation that it would give Ryan room to range on a variety of high-profile, critical policy issues.
The Wall Street Journal notes, “The top job on Ways and Means would present major distractions, and potential pitfalls, for anyone seeking higher office. But it could also provide a platform for Republican messaging on economic issues as Democrats maintain a focus on issues of economic inequality.” It is the latter, he and his staff believe. And while Ways and Means has historically been the mover on tax policy, there are few if any domestic policy matters that are outside its purview. (“Ways and Means has broad jurisdiction over many of the nation’s most important but difficult policy problems, from tax and trade policy to Social Security, Medicare and social services.”)
The move doesn’t tell us much if anything about his plans to run for the presidency in 2016. It will, however, be the point at which he will face the proverbial fork in the road: Continue as a policy impresario in the House or run for president. The Ways and Means chairmanship would be Ryan’s last job that could lead in either direction.
Of late, Ryan has been talking more about tax policy. It’s no secret that the current Chairman Dave Camp has studied and consulted up the wazoo on the issue but produced no plan, let alone helped pass a bill. A Ryan tax plan would be the first significant legislation that would reveal his broader agenda. Will he go strictly pro-growth, with a flatter and broader tax code — or will he, as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and other conservatives have suggested, use it to promote social policy (e.g. expanding the child tax credit)? If he wants to revamp health-care policy by, for example, equalizing the tax treatment of health-care insurance provided by businesses with individually purchased plans, that, too, will show up in a tax plan. If he intends to pursue a conservative agenda to promote social mobility and opportunity (the right’s take on income inequality), you’d see a tax plan that removes crony tax gimmicks (e.g. “green” energy company giveaways).
It is widely expected that next year Ryan will offer his own health-care plan, some of which would be evident in a tax plan and some of which (e.g. repeal Obamacare, allow interstate insurance sales, address preexisting illnesses) would not. That generally isn’t the province of the budget committee, but by putting a plan out there in 2014, Ryan would give Republicans a platform to run on and a mandate for his own policy proposal.
In sum, if Ryan wants to run for the presidency, this is precisely the course to take to expand his influence and outshine Senate show ponies who contribute only rhetoric. And if he falls in love with the job, well then, he can stay on or continue up the leadership ladder. As hard as it is to believe, Ryan, I am convinced, hasn’t yet decided which it will be.
The House Web site reminds us, “Only Henry Clay (1824), James A. Garfield (1880), and John Anderson (1980) ran for President in the general election as sitting House Members. In Garfield’s case, the only successful instance of a sitting Representative becoming President, he had already been elected by the Ohio legislature to the U.S. Senate. Anderson ran as an independent challenger, and Clay’s candidacy predated the rise of the modern two-party system.” But then again, Ryan is no ordinary representative. He’s run for vice president and since 2010 has been the Republicans’ policy leader. With 24-7 news coverage, Ryan, unlike previous representatives seeking higher office, has 100 percent name recognition and constant access to free media. His success this year makes 2014 and 2015 critical years for Ryan — as they will be for the entire GOP. We will have to see whether that puts him on the path to the House speakership or the presidency.