Upon news of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement Wednesday, liberals knew to attack him, but didn’t know exactly why. Liberal Politico columnist Michael Grunwald skewered Ryan’s hypocrisy on fiscal discipline:
Ryan’s support for higher spending has not been limited to defense and homeland security. He supported Bush’s expansion of prescription drug benefits, as well as the auto bailout and Wall Street bailout during the financial crisis…Ryan does talk a lot about reining in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, for which he’s routinely praised as a courageous truth-teller. But he’s never actually made entitlement reform happen. Congress did pass one law during his tenure that reduced Medicare spending by more than $700 billion, but that law was Obamacare, and Ryan bitterly opposed it.
For the record, Ryan opposed Obamacare because, as he repeatedly noted during the 2012 campaign, the law “raided” Medicare to pay for Obamacare. (Kathleen Sebelius, a member of President Obama’s cabinet, admitted the law used Medicare spending reductions to both “save Medicare” and “fund health care reform.”)
Compare that with a Vox article, titled “Paul Ryan’s Most Important Legacy is Trump’s War on Medicaid”: “[Paul] Ryan’s dreams are alive and well. Through work requirements and other restrictions, President Donald Trump could eventually oversee the most significant rollback of Medicaid benefits in the program’s 50-year history.” It goes on to talk about how the administration “is carrying on Ryan’s Medicaid-gutting agenda.”
Which is it? On fiscal discipline, is Ryan an incompetent hypocrite, or a slash-and-burn maniac throwing poor people out on the streets? As in most cases, reality contains nuance. Several caveats are in order.
First, Ryan’s budgets always contained “magic asterisks.” As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2012, “the budget resolutions he wrote would have left that Medicare ‘raid’ in place”—because Republicans could only achieve the political goal of a balanced budget within ten years by retaining Obamacare’s tax increases and Medicare reductions.” The budgets generally repealed the Obamacare entitlements, thus allowing the Medicare reductions to bolster that program rather than financing Obamacare. The budgets served as messaging documents, but generally lacked many of the critical details to transform them from visions into actual policy.
Second, to the best of my recollections, Ryan never took on the leadership of his party on a major policy issue. Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner famously never requested an earmark during a quarter-century in Congress. Sen. John McCain’s “Maverick” image came from his fight against fellow Republicans on campaign finance reform.
But whether as a backbencher or a committee chair, Ryan rarely bucked the party line. That meant voting for the Bush administration’s big-spending bills like the Medicare Modernization Act and TARP—both of which the current vice president, Mike Pence, voted against while a backbench member of Congress.
Third, particularly under this president, Republicans do not want to reform entitlements. As I noted during the 2016 election, neither presidential candidate made an issue of entitlement reform, or Medicare’s impending insolvency. In fact, both went out of their way to avoid the issue. Any House speaker would have difficulty convincing this president to embrace substantive entitlement reforms.
In general, one can argue that, contrary to his image as a leader on fiscal issues, Ryan too readily followed. Other Republicans would support his austere budgets, which never had the force of law, but he would support their big-spending bills, many of which made it to the statute books.
On one issue, however, Ryan did lead—and in the worst possible way. As I wrote last fall, Ryan brought to the House floor legislation repealing Obamacare’s cap on Medicare spending. This past February, that repeal became law.
Ryan could have sought to retain that cap while discarding the unelected, unaccountable board Obamacare created to enforce it. As a result, Ryan’s “legacy” on entitlement reform will consist of his role as the first speaker to repeal a cap on entitlement spending.
Primum non nocere—first, do no harm. Ryan may not have had the power to compel Republicans to reform entitlements, but he did have the power—if he had had the courage—to prevent his own party from making the problem any worse. He did not.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.