In the film “A Man for All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More addresses a witness who has perjured himself to convict More. Thomas More, after noting the man’s appointment to a post in Wales, says, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?” There is no better summation of the career of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
Ryan rose to prominence in the GOP by inveighing against debt. In 2008, he introduced “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” arguing:
America has a choice between two futures. In one — the fiscal path we’re on now — we continue trying to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world with outdated programs that are growing themselves right into extinction. This will lead us down a fiscal path on which Americans’ health and retirement security programs collapse; we condemn future generations to a crushing burden of debt and taxes; and our economy is crippled and unable to compete with the rest of the world. …
And when I see a government that makes promises it can’t possibly keep; a future where my kids will be worse off than I am; and an American economy that will struggle to compete — let alone lead — in an international economy — I see the need for a plan that sets a different course.
Year after year, Ryan harangued Congress about the debt, warning that a debt crisis was inevitable if we kept spending. He offered in one budget plan after another tax cuts along with an assortment of discretionary cuts and entitlement reforms. Unsurprisingly, President Barack Obama was uninterested in his plans.
In “The Path to Prosperity” (2014), Ryan wrote:
The national debt has skyrocketed and continues to climb — well after the recession. In May 2013, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected the federal government would add $6.3 trillion to the national debt from 2014 to 2023. But in February 2014 — not even a year later — CBO revised its forecast to $7.3 trillion — a $1 trillion increase. … Under current law, the deficit will start growing in just two years. By 2022, the U.S. will be running trillion-dollar deficits again — even though the federal government will be taking in a historically large share of revenue. That’s because spending will be growing twice as fast as revenue. So over the next ten years, the national debt will grow by $10 trillion — for a grand total of $27 trillion.
He reminded the country, “The Congressional Budget Office has estimated several times over nearly 20 years that congressional action to reduce deficits will ultimately result in lower interest rates and faster economic growth by freeing up savings for use in productive investment. In addition, CBO has estimated that the positive economic effects of deficit reduction will feed back into the budget and further reduce deficits and debt over the medium and longer term.”
Ryan’s great accomplishment by his own reckoning is his tax cut. (It is not reform; it makes the code more, not less complicated.) That plan will leave a mountain of debt that dwarfs prior projections. CBO recently explained, “As deficits accumulate in CBO’s projections, debt held by the public rises from 78 percent of GDP (or $16 trillion) at the end of 2018 to 96 percent of GDP (or $29 trillion) by 2028. That percentage would be the largest since 1946 and well more than twice the average over the past five decades.”
Put differently, Ryan’s “greatest accomplishment” is to make much, much worse the problem he has spent a decade fighting. And for what? “After averaging 1.7 percent from 2020 through 2026, real GDP growth is projected to average 1.8 percent in the last two years of the 2018–2028 period.” Really, that’s it? Yup. “The fiscal stimulus that they provide boosts GDP by 0.3 percent in 2018 and by 0.6 percent in 2019, in CBO’s assessment. However, the larger budget deficits that would result are estimated to reduce the resources available for private investment, lowering GDP in later years.” We will accumulate all that debt for puny results.
Now Ryan shrugs and tells us that the debt was always going to balloon. “The baby boomers’ retiring was going to do that. These deficit trillion-dollar projections have been out there for a long, long time. Why? Because of mandatory spending which we call entitlements.” Oh, and he blames the Democrats who created Obamacare. Now, you don’t see displays of such jaw-dropping chutzpah every day.
The tax cut will, if anything, make income inequality worse. It will not change the economic prospects even in the short term very much for the non-rich who watch as health-care costs rise and, if President Trump has his way, tariffs increase prices for consumers. Ludicrous promises that wages would rise by an average of $9,000 have collided with reality, wherein the vast majority of the corporate tax cuts are going to shareholders — not workers.
On its own terms, the tax cut does very little good — even with the sunniest projections — while making the single biggest economic problem (ask Ryan!), namely the debt, much worse. And for that, which really is Ryan’s sole claim to fame, Ryan enabled, encouraged and defended Trump every step of the way. He chides the country for “identity politics” (no, really). But he:
- Refused to enforce the Constitution’s emoluments clause or demand that Trump end conflicts of interest.
- Supported Trump’s noxious crusade against “dreamers.”
- Left on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has torn down the architecture of intelligence oversight, smeared the FBI and misled the public about the workings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the Justice Department.
- Declined to protect the special counsel or to rebuke Trump on his serial attacks on the rule of law.
- Balked at a congressional action (too partisan!) against Trump for his Charlottesville remarks.
- Declined to demand robust oversight of a slew of financial scandals involving the Interior Department, the Treasury Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Couldn’t demand accountability after more than a dozen women came forward with complaints of sexual harassment/abuse; Trump’s endorsement of Roy Moore; or payoffs to Trump’s alleged ex-mistresses.
I could go on, but you get the point. You did all that, Mr. Speaker, for Wales … er … a tax cut, and one that delivers, on balance, very little — if any — long-term benefits. Oh, and you very likely have consigned your party to minority status in the House.
I suppose there have been speakers with worse records, but I just can’t think of any right now.