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Paul Ryan Eager to Talk About Taxes, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Speaker says tax overhaul could be easier lift than health care

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan had plenty to say Wednesday about the tax code, the GOP agenda and even the books he’s read recently. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan had plenty to say Wednesday about the tax code, the GOP agenda and even the books he’s read recently. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Wednesday that Republican efforts to rewrite the tax code will come easier than overhauling the health insurance system because the procedural rules they will use are more conducive to changing tax policy.

“Tax reform, all of that can go into a reconciliation process, so we don’t have the real frustrations that members are experiencing with reconciliation like we have with health care,” the Wisconsin Republican said during a wide-ranging Q&A session hosted by WisPolitics in Washington.

Republicans have yet to produce a tax bill but one element of the House GOP’s “A Better Way” blueprint has already sparked arguments — the “border adjustment tax” that calls for the United States to tax imports instead of exports, like most other developed nations do.

“A border adjustment tax is a mechanism not to affect trade but to get to a cash flow tax,” Ryan said.

The speaker dismissed the idea of widespread opposition, saying, “Once people kind of understand what this is, you see a lot of minds turning.”

Ryan then went on to provide a lengthy explanation of how it would work. He invoked Miller beer produced in Milwaukee, which is currently subject to an export tax leaving the United States and import taxes upon arrival in many foreign countries, and the Dutch-produced Heineken, which is neither subject to export taxes leaving the Netherlands nor import taxes in the United States.

“We think there is a lot of merit to this idea,” he concluded.

Ryan, a former Ways and Means chairman, seems eager to talk taxes and get moving on legislation, but he’s not ready to abandon talks surrounding the GOP’s health care legislation. Republicans can keep “working” on that bill for weeks, he said, noting that he has encouraged his members to talk to one another about their concerns and that he remains “hopeful” a deal can be reached.

“I don’t want to put any specific odds on it or an artificial timeline,” the speaker said.

While the goal of having the health care bill enacted into law by the end of April was part of the “ideal calendar” that Ryan said he laid out for 2017, he noted that the timetable “clearly has room to breathe.”

One area of the calendar that does not provide much breathing room is appropriations. Republicans are up against an April 28 deadline for funding the government for the remainder of fiscal 2017.

Ryan said a government shutdown is not linked to the success or failure of the health care talks, nor does he believe there will be a shutdown.

“I don’t believe so, because I think we should get what we need to do to advance the president’s priorities,” he said.

Ryan said the pressure that Republicans had to negotiate riders with the Obama administration and Democrats when they had divided government “has evaporated with respect to [President Donald] Trump.” However, Democratic votes will still be needed in the Senate — and likely in the House — to keep the government open.

When asked specifically about Trump’s proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health, Ryan avoided criticizing the administration for that proposal but indicated it was unlikely that Congress would go along.

“I don’t try to get into making my opinion on this, on specific provisions,” he said. “All I would say is perhaps the most popular domestic funding we have among Republicans is NIH.”

Ryan said the administration was just getting started in identifying priorities. “I think you’re just seeing a piece of what they’re trying to achieve,” he said.

The speaker also noted that he believes mandatory spending cuts must be part of any attempt to balance the budget, but that there are also domestic spending cuts that can be made to ensure funding is spent on high priority programs. “Among the high priorities is basic health research, NIH, things like that,” he said.

The event also waded briefly into foreign affairs, with Ryan commenting on the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria that officials are blaming on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“I don’t want to get ahead of what our military is going to be doing or what our president is going to be doing, but I think he was dealt a terrible hand,” the speaker said, noting that he believes Trump is handling the issue the best he can.

Ryan said he does not see a “causal relationship” between comments made by United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Assad’s actions.

“The responsibility rests with the man who did that and no one else,” he said.

The event concluded with a more lighthearted question about recent books Ryan has read and enjoyed. The speaker chose a book about President James A. Garfield but said the one that sticks out most in his mind is J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” which Ryan called “a really well-written story about a young man who made it out of a real tough background.”

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