Rep. Paul Ryan’s skills as a telegenic policy wonk have helped him emerge as a prominent spokesman for Congressional Republicans. As chairman of the Budget Committee and author of a plan to cut federal spending by $4 trillion over 10 years, he has been the party’s point man in ongoing spending debate in the House.
Bolstered by the election of 87 House GOP freshmen in 2010, most of whom are alight with the idea of reducing the scope of government, the Wisconsin Republican has at last found a ready audience – and foot soldiers ready to enlist in his crusade.
For most people, the federal budget is just numbers in a ledger. For Ryan, it’s a cause. His plan aims at nothing less than amending the social contract between the government and the governed. That change, he says, is not a choice, but a necessity.
“Washington has not been telling you the truth about the magnitude of the problems we are facing,” he said in the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s weekly radio address in April 2011. “Unless we act soon, government spending on health and retirement programs will crowd out spending on everything else, including national security. It will literally take every cent of every federal tax dollar just to pay for these programs.”
In January 2010, Ryan gained considerable attention when he unveiled the second edition of his “Roadmap for America’s Future,” an ambitious proposal to eliminate projected future federal deficits by overhauling the tax code – he also serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee – along with Social Security and the health care system. The “Roadmap” served as a precursor to the fiscal 2012 budget he wrote, which the House passed in April 2011.
Obama mentioned Ryan’s plan while addressing House Republicans at their annual retreat, calling it a “serious proposal” while noting areas of disagreement. Other administration officials and Democratic Congressional leaders sought to draw attention to Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare, which they argued would reduce benefits and transfer more costs onto recipients.
Ryan was highly visible during debate on health care overhaul legislation in the last Congress. He and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) joined a pair of Republican Senators, Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), in introducing an alternative that would have authorized state health insurance exchanges and provided tax credits to families for insurance purchases while repealing the tax deduction for employer-provided health insurance. Ryan strongly opposed the final health care overhaul legislation, calling it “paternalistic” and “arrogant,” and he voted to repeal it in early 2011.
Ryan says his philosophy of individualism and entrepreneurial capitalism was influenced most deeply by novelist Ayn Rand. He lists the late New York Rep. Jack Kemp, his former boss and the 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee, as his political role model. “Jack had a huge influence on me, his brand of inclusive conservatism, his pro-growth, happy-warrior style. That was infectious to me,” Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2009.
Even though he is a member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Ryan sometimes splits with party activists, especially on regional issues. In 2008, he voted in favor of the creation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, arguing that the $700 billion program was needed to avoid economic collapse.
He also supported aid to the domestic auto industry, which historically has had a major presence in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville. A June 2010 profile in the libertarian magazine Reason noted this dual persona, calling Ryan “one of the staunchest and most serious small-government advocates in Congress today” who is also “a savvy Washington politician who defends parochial, home-state interests when necessary.”
The youngest of four children, Ryan was 16 when his father died. His mother used Social Security survivor’s benefits to help pay for his college education. He said that helped shape his personal and political beliefs. “It made me more of a self-starter and scrapper,” Ryan said. He “wasn’t one of these guys who thought from second grade on that he wanted to run for Congress.” But after college, he took a job as an aide to Wisconsin GOP Sen. Bob Kasten. His direct speaking style mirrors that of his two mentors, Kemp and William Bennett, former Republican Cabinet secretaries and co-founders of Empower America, a conservative think tank where Ryan worked. He also worked for Kansas Republican Sam Brownback in the House and Senate.
After five years in Washington, he returned to Wisconsin to join his family’s earth-moving and construction business. When GOP Rep. Mark Neumann ran for the Senate in 1998, Ryan sought the open seat. His opponent in November was Democrat Lydia Spottswood, a former Kenosha City Council president who nearly beat Neumann in 1996. Ryan proved a superior campaigner – he earned the nickname “Robocandidate” – and won by more than 27,000 votes, a surprisingly large margin given that the previous three races in the district had been decided by no more than 4,000 votes. He entered Congress in January 1999 as the youngest member of that year’s freshman class – 28 years old.
He has since won each re-election with more than 62 percent of the vote. President George W. Bush offered to make him his budget director during his second term, an offer Ryan turned down.
He hasn’t ruled out a future Senate bid but decided against a presidential candidate bid in 2012, despite the importuning of many conservatives. “My head is not that big and my kids are too small,” he told the New York Times in 2010. However, in the same interview, he left open the possibility of accepting the vice presidential nomination if offered. “I’d cross that bridge if we ever come to it,” he said.
That bridge has now been crossed.