HOUSE SPEAKER Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) justified his endorsement of Donald Trump this month by arguing that the billionaire would be more likely than Hillary Clinton to sign GOP ideas into law. At best, this was a risky bet on the ideologically flexible Mr. Trump — but a commitment to bold reform was at least understandable as a motive for soul-selling. Now we are getting a look at the agenda Mr. Ryan has been preparing, and it suggests he sold his soul awfully cheaply.
For months, Mr. Ryan has been promising a proactive governing platform on which Republicans can run. On Tuesday, he began rolling it out with a 35-page brief on how the GOP would combat poverty. The speaker has put special emphasis on this issue in the past. In 2014, he released an ambitious plan proposing a broad restructuring of the government’s anti-poverty programs with the goal of pressing beneficiaries harder to improve their lives, in effect making the government the nation’s life coach. The idea was controversial, and rightly so.
But Mr. Ryan got behind some broadly admired ideas in the past, too. For example, he proposed pumping up the earned-income tax credit (EITC), which tops up low-income workers’ wages, a reform with potentially broad bipartisan appeal because it fights poverty while rewarding work. At the moment, the EITC is mostly targeted at families, rather than all Americans in the ranks of the working poor, and benefits are too meager. Expanding eligibility and increasing benefits should be a cornerstone of any anti-poverty reform program.
In the House GOP’s latest document, however, the EITC is hardly mentioned. Instead, the report includes a line about “increasing” it — an unhelpfully vague suggestion — and goes on to dwell on EITC fraud. The outline spends much more time on bromides such as working with nonprofit groups and giving states more flexibility. These reflect Republican federalist principles, but with a fatal lack of specificity. The program offers no real sense of how states might work through a series of thorny issues in practice: How to design a welfare system that phases out as income grows but does not discourage people from seeking higher wages, for example. The EITC is a potential solution, but Republicans appear not to have the stomach for it.
Mr. Ryan deserves credit for trying to engage his colleagues in a policy discussion. But his latest agenda seems designed to win acceptance from a fractious House Republican caucus, a vocal minority of which has no interest in affirmative policymaking of any kind, least of all fighting poverty. It’s thin gruel to justify endorsing a man Mr. Ryan knows is unfit for the presidency.
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