House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has long had a reputation as a “serious” policymaker in Washington, a grown-up dedicated to the arcane details of how the federal government works and capable of crafting real solutions to the nation's problems. Conservatives raved about his commitment to putting their principles into legislation, and even liberals who loathed Ryan's goals would concede his intellectual chops.
President Barack Obama, visiting a Republican retreat in 2010 to call for interparty cooperation, praised Ryan's work on the budget as “serious” and “entirely legitimate.”
But following the failure of a Ryan-championed bill to repeal Obama's Affordable Care Act that was panned by experts on the left and right, Ryan's reputation as a policy expert is under renewed assault.
“It’s hard to make a case that his efforts have been all that serious,” said Jared Bernstein, who was chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “His numbers never add up.”
The New York Times editorial board this week wrote an even harsher assessment of the House speaker: “If he is the policy wonk of the Republican Party, then the Republican Party has no policy.”
To critics, Ryan's health-care failure is proof of what they've said all along: Ryan always presented himself as a serious thinker, but his ideas are half-baked at best. To his defenders, Ryan's failure on health care has more to do with a fractious Republican caucus that wasn't ready to unite behind any measure, let alone a bill that President Trump wanted to move through Congress in a matter of weeks.
A look at Ryan's record reveals that although he demonstrated far more expertise than the typical lawmaker, he has yet to confront fully the difficult compromises involved in making federal policy with a comprehensive plan that can achieve conservative goals on a major issue.
Ryan has courted his role as unofficial House policy nerd. It was recently on display in the lead-up to the health-care bill, when Ryan — amid the usual bellicose tweets from Trump, who seemed to have little interest in the details of the plan — invited reporters for what resembled a televised college lecture, complete with slides, earnest talk and detailed explanations about the need for a conservative approach to health policy.
Ryan spent more than 18 years in Congress churning out white papers, talking deficits with reporters and treating his Capitol Hill colleagues to fiscal policy presentations — again, with slides. Before serving as speaker, he chaired two House committees: budget and ways and means. And before joining Congress, Ryan worked for former congressmen Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Sam Brownback, now the Republican governor of Kansas — a pair of politicians committed to supply-side tax reform.
The speaker touts a lifelong interest in policy, telling the National Review's Rich Lowry this month that they had wanted to reform entitlements since they were young men. “Medicaid — sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate — we've been dreaming of this since I've been around, since you and I were drinking at a keg,” Ryan said.
In 2003, Ryan gave a detailed explanation of his proposal to reform the congressional budgeting process to the Weekly Standard, which the conservative paper quoted at length. “Am I totally boring, or what?” Ryan was quoted as asking in the article, which ran under the headline, “Young, Wonky and Proud of It.”
By 2013, Ryan was established enough to lead his party in a bipartisan compromise on the budget, working with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), although the bill that Obama signed did not include the kinds of structural entitlement reform that Ryan had long advocated.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as director of the Congressional Budget Office when Ryan chaired the Budget Committee, called the Republican from Wisconsin “a very well-versed, sophisticated participant” in policymaking. “He knows this stuff inside and out,” Holtz-Eakin said.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for the speaker, in a statement: “No one has done more to develop and advance conservative policy over the last two decades than Paul Ryan. Now with a Republican president, he’ll continue to work tirelessly to get additional conservative reforms into law.”
That didn't happen on health care, but brokering a compromise was never going to be easy.
The CBO concluded that the GOP plan would result in as many as 24 million more Americans going without insurance by 2024, and that premiums would increase in the short term. Conservative Republicans who worried that the bill would do too little to reduce health-care costs and moderate GOP lawmakers who were concerned about the millions who would be uninsured refused to support the legislation.
Expanding the measure's provisions to guarantee insurance for a larger group of Americans might have increased the bill's fiscal cost as well as the federal government's authority over the insurance industry, alienating conservative lawmakers. Efforts to reduce costs through greater deregulation, as that group advocated, might have resulted in even more Americans becoming uninsured. Even Bernstein, a Ryan critic, conceded getting moderate and conservative Republicans to agree on a health-care bill would be like “herding cats.”
Holtz-Eakin added: “The reality is that it is always going to be very hard to get a single bill that attracted votes from everyone from the Freedom Caucus to Susan Collins.” He was referring to the very conservative House Freedom Caucus and the moderate Republican senator from Maine.
Conservative health-care expert Avik Roy said of Ryan: "It's not so much that he's not a policy wonk or anything like that."
Roy, who has advised GOP presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, has written critically about aspects of the bill that failed last week, but he said that if Ryan can unify the Republican conference, he still has an opportunity to put conservative ideas about American health care into effect.
“Everyone's learning, as they go along, how to govern,” Roy said. “Hopefully it will lead to a better bill and a better policy down the road.”
The bill's critics objected to specific provisions as well as its basic principles.
Republicans had said that the Affordable Care Act created a new entitlement by giving middle-class households financial help to buy insurance, but the GOP plan would have expanded that help to a larger group of Americans. Worse, analysts said the structure of that expansion would have made insurance less affordable, not less expensive, for many people.
The bill would not have repealed many of the regulations that conservative experts said were increasing prices for health care. Ryan and his allies worried that an attempt to repeal those provisions would have exposed the bill to a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, but observers on the right worried that a filibuster was a risk in any case.
It was not clear whether the measure was intended as a wholesale reform or an incremental, piecemeal change to the system that could survive the Senate's rules. It was unclear whether it was designed to reduce federal spending or to make insurance less costly for more people using public benefits.
The bill seemed designed to satisfy several competing conservative factions with contradictory aims for the legislation.
Previously, when Ryan had sought to please everyone in the GOP conference at the same time, he had succeeded.
Beginning in 2010, Ryan united House Republicans behind his proposals for the budget. Ryan's budgets, at least in theory, eliminated the federal government's shortfall over the long term — and are held up as the primary evidence that his reputation as a policy expert is well-earned.
Lining up lawmakers in support of a budget is always difficult, but Ryan's achievement was especially notable because his budgets called for extreme reductions to Medicare relative to current projections. In past Congresses, few Republicans might have been willing to vote for the cuts, but the tea-party movement had created a more conservative conference that was ready to support Ryan's plans.
Meanwhile, left-leaning observers praised his policy acumen: “Whether or not you like his answer, you have to give him credit for stepping up to the chalkboard,” blogger Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post in 2010.
Yet that plan, and others Ryan subsequently released, relied on assumptions about future federal revenue and outlays that critics said were optimistic. For instance, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office's analysis of Ryan's budget in 2010, his staff assumed that the trend for revenue would not change even though the budget would have significantly reduced taxes on wealthy taxpayers. (His proposal the following year relied on similar assumptions.)
Resolutions on the budget such as the ones that Ryan wrote are often statements of a party's goals, not detailed legislation designed to be enacted and implemented. Bernstein, Biden's former economist, noted that many politicians in both parties have avoided difficult decisions about the budget by obscuring the arithmetic.
“That’s a very typical Ryan tactic, but to be fair, he’s not the only one who uses it,” Bernstein said.
Paul Krugman, a liberal economist and Nobel laureate who is perhaps the most prominent of Ryan's skeptics, disparaged Ryan's work, saying it relied on a set of unfounded assumptions about a booming economy and inexplicably falling health-care costs.
“Swooning” commentators “lavished praise on Mr. Ryan, asserting that his plan set a new standard of fiscal seriousness,” Krugman wrote in 2011. “In short, this plan isn’t remotely serious; on the contrary, it’s ludicrous.”
The congressman from Wisconsin probably will have another chance to prove his critics wrong as Republicans pivot to reforming the tax code, the wonkiest work a lawmaker can do in Washington.
Trump is running into the Democrats' trap. Whether Ryan's proposal on taxes wins plaudits for seriousness may not entirely be a function of the proposal itself. The esteem many liberals' have for Ryan's policy ability seems to be strongest when Ryan has the least hope of putting any of those policies into action.
Back in 2010, when Obama praised Ryan's work on the budget, it had no chance of becoming law. Obama was in the White House, and Democrats controlled the Senate.
Praising Ryan was a nice way for Democrats to insist they weren't closed to Republican ideas, and Ryan was a useful contrast for Democrats looking to marginalize Obama's most strident critics. Those included the ascendant tea-party caucus and a reality-television star telling anyone who would listen that Obama was a secret Kenyan with a faked U.S. birth certificate.
It was very different two years later, however, when Ryan became Romney's pick for his vice presidential running mate.
Democrats tried to tie Romney to the “Ryan budget” and sink him with it, highlighting its cuts to the social safety net and massive tax breaks for the wealthy. Already by 2011, the president's admiration for Ryan's work vanished.
“There's nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending $1 trillion on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, and I don't think there's anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don't have any clout on Capitol Hill,” Obama said at George Washington University. “That's not a vision of the America I know.”