Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, has been described in the past few days as a combination of two congressional ideals. Tea Party activists say he is an uncompromising budget-cutter. Romney himself says Ryan is a deal-maker, able to find common ground with Democrats.
Over a complicated, contradictory career in the House, Ryan (R-Wisc.) has done plenty to prove them both wrong.
For more than half his career, Ryan was a dutiful GOP foot soldier, which meant he voted for many of the budget-busting, Bush-era measures that tea partiers have come to hate. Ryan was a “yes” for expanding Medicare prescription-drug coverage, as well as bailing out the financial sector and automakers.
During more than 13 years in Congress, Ryan has passed just two of his bills into law.
But he has still managed a remarkable feat: creating a political persona in which nearly all facets of the GOP can find something to like.
“He had voted for a couple of those things that I might find objectionable,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a conservative freshman. “He had to earn my trust, and he had to earn that credibility.”
Ryan did it, Mulvaney said, by demonstrating that he had deep knowledge of budget issues, and a passion to begin undoing Congress’s past mistakes. “This is not just another politician who’s decided to take an issue and pretend like he knows a bunch about it,” Mulvaney said. “Paul really is the leading expert on this.”
Ryan is the first sitting House member to be chosen as a vice-presidential running mate since then-Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.), in 1984. Since his selection, he has been attacked by Democrats as a ruthless ideologue, whose budget proposals would “end Medicare.”
They’re not totally right about him, either.
Ryan’s latest budget would allow current seniors to keep their Medicare coverage, unchanged. But it would alter the arrangement for those turning 65 after 2023, offering seniors a set amount to buy health plans from private insurers.
The House career that brought Ryan to this moment began in 1999, when he was sworn in as a 28-year-old freshman. His first speech, on March 2 of that year, was in support of a resolution that would reassure the nation’s elderly: If Congress was going to overhaul Social Security that year, it wouldn’t take benefits away from current retirees.
“We need to send a message to our nation’s Social Security retirees, our current beneficiaries, that they will be held harmless,” Ryan said. The measure passed.
But it didn’t matter much: No overhaul actually came.
After a year and a half on the job, Ryan reached a milestone: He passed his first bill. It renamed a post office.
Four years later, Ryan got another bill passed. It lowered the excise tax on the parts used to make arrows.
This is the sum total of Paul Ryan’s changes to U.S. code. After 2006, Ryan’s focus was on a committee — the Budget Committee — whose main job is to produce theoretical statements of policy, not actual law. He has not passed a law since.
Still, Romney has touted his running mate as someone with a record of breaking congressional gridlock and getting things done.
“He’s demonstrated, over his years there, an ability to work across the aisle, to find people who have common purpose, who may disagree on some issues but find enough common ground to get things done,” Romney told reporters on Monday.
There are some statistics to back this up. According to the watchdog Web site GovTrack.us, Ryan has signed on as a co-sponsor for 975 bills. Of those, 22 percent were sponsored by Democrats. By this measure, he is slightly more bipartisan than the average Republican, with a figure of 19 percent.
But those who have watched Ryan’s recent career — when he has embraced the role of GOP big-thinker — say finding common ground has not seemed to be Ryan’s interest.
“No, goodness, gracious.” said Steve Bell, a longtime Republican staffer on the Hill, who now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Certainly those of us who admire Paul Ryan do not admire him because he has been able to bring George Miller or Nancy Pelosi … over to his side.” Miller is a liberal California Democrat, Pelosi (Calif.) is the Democratic minority leader.
On Monday, to back up Romney’s praise for Ryan, his campaign provided two examples of the congressman working with Democrats.
In one instance, Ryan worked with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last year on a plan to revamp Medicare. And he worked with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on a bill that would give presidents a watered-down kind of line-item veto: a new power to suggest specific spending cuts to Congress.
But in both cases, the Democrats involved said Ryan had done nothing very special.
“Governor Romney is talking nonsense,” Wyden said in a statement. He pointed out that the plan he worked on with Ryan was just a plan, not actual legislation.
And Van Hollen said that the bill he worked on with Ryan was an old idea, and nothing revolutionary.
“This is an idea that’s been around,” Van Hollen said. The bill passed the House, but went nowhere in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Van Hollen said that, on bigger issues, Ryan had used the Budget Committee like it had been used in the past: to sketch out partisan visions, with little compromising with the other side.
“It’s important not to confuse civility with a willingness to compromise,” Van Hollen said Monday. He said Ryan had shown a lot of the first, but little of the second, on big budget issues.
Indeed, Ryan’s recent years in Congress have been built around the idea that budget issues were too important to compromise on.
Last year, introducing his sweeping plan to change Medicare, cut Medicaid, cut taxes and push the U.S. back toward a balanced budget, Ryan said, “This is not a budget. This is a cause.”
To a new crop of GOP legislators, Ryan’s current devotion to that cause has overshadowed those past votes for bailouts and Medicare expansion.
“Paul is not afraid of new ideas,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who stood behind Ryan when he said that.
Lankford said he admired Ryan for his willingness to sketch out complicated ideas and to say no to compromises.
“He is a person who is not afraid to say to someone he disagrees with … ‘I’m not going to move,’” Lankford said.
Paul Kane contributed to this report