House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has told House Republicans Wednesday that he will not run for re-election.
The timing of his announcement came as a surprise. Lawmakers had expected Ryan might leave Congress if Republicans were to lose control of the House in November’s midterm elections.
A former House GOP leadership aide with direct knowledge of the situation said, “There is not a lot of legislating left to be done, and that’s something that motivated Ryan in the first place. He never wanted to be speaker anyway.”
Paul Ryan's Legacy of Red Ink
Paul Ryan promotes his brand as a deficit hawk so diligently that he has been known to refer to himself in the third person as Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk. “Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk is also a growth advocate,” he said on Fox News in November after releasing the Republican tax-cut plan. “Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk knows you have to have a faster-growing economy, more jobs, bigger take-home pay.”
Ryan’s “fiscal conservative” brand has gotten impressive traction, but now that he’s announcing he’s leaving Congress in January, it’s worth noting (not for the first time) that Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk has never behaved like a deficit hawk. In his two decades in Washington, Ryan has consistently supported tax cuts and spending hikes that have boosted deficits, while consistently trashing Democrats for failing to cut deficits. It will inevitably be described as “ironic” that Ryan came to Congress when the budget was in surplus and left with deficits heading toward $1 trillion, but those deficits are his greatest legacy.
Ryan loves to talk about reducing the national debt, but what he loves to do is reduce taxes, which increases the national debt. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Republican tax bill President Donald Trump signed last year will produce an additional $1.5 trillion in red ink over the next decade. Ryan was also an exuberant supporter of the George W. Bush tax cuts, which have added more than $5 trillion to the debt since 2001. And he repeatedly proposed even larger tax cuts when he chaired the House Budget Committee. The Tax Policy Center calculated that the 2013 “Ryan budget,” for example, would have reduced federal revenue by nearly $6 trillion over a decade.
It’s not quite fair to say that Ryan never met a tax cut he didn’t like. He opposes “refundable” tax credits for the working poor, which he considers welfare spending. And he went to war against Barack Obama’s stimulus bill in 2009, which provided $300 billion in tax cuts to 95 percent of the public. But it is fair to say that Ryan never met a tax hike he didn’t dislike, even though taxes raise the revenues that cut deficits. He signed Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge, and he has been one of its most vigilant enforcers on Capitol Hill. Not only did Ryan fight Obama’s various efforts to raise taxes on the rich, but he also has helped protect tax breaks for companies that manage private jets, the “carried interest loophole” that allows hedge fund managers to pay lower tax rates, and numerous other tax breaks for special interests ranging from NASCAR owners to nuclear power plants. He has helped lead the Republican crusade to eliminate the estate tax on behalf of the heirs of multimillionaires.
Ryan’s defenders point out that while he’s pushed for lower taxes, he’s also been a consistent voice for lower spending, and deficits happen only when the government spends more than it brings in. But while he has been a voice for less government spending, especially by Democratic presidents, he’s repeatedly voted for big expansions of government spending. He’s been a vocal supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have added more than $2 trillion to the debt. He was a strong advocate for Bush’s homeland security spending binge, and he recently pushed through even bigger increases in military spending than Trump requested.
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. And while Trump’s original budget proposal included deep cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and other nonmilitary spending, the final compromise Ryan shepherded through the House boosted nonmilitary as well as military spending.
In fairness, 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. In fact, when he ran for vice president on a ticket with Mitt Romney, the Romney-Ryan campaign ran ads attacking Obama for those Medicare cuts.
The CBO has calculated that so far, Obamacare—the Affordable Care Act—has cut the deficit by $143 billion. Still, one could argue that given the partisan dysfunction in Washington, the only way to ensure lasting deficit reduction would be a bipartisan agreement to trim some spending and raise some revenues while continuing to invest in the country’s long-term economic priorities. So Obama created a bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010 to try to create that kind of agreement, and Ryan served on the commission. But when the commission finally voted on the so-called Simpson-Bowles plan that would have reduced deficits by nearly $4 trillion, Deficit Hawk Paul Ryan voted no.
There are legitimate reasons for politicians to oppose deficit hawkishness. Shrinking the deficit was certainly a terrible idea in 2009, when the private sector was in meltdown and public-sector stimulus was the only way to revive business and household spending. Even now that the economy has stabilized and unemployment is low, some economists believe it would make sense to borrow even more at a time when interest rates are still low, in order to invest in infrastructure and other priorities that could boost America's long-term competitiveness. Some principled liberals believe Obama presided over far too much deficit reduction during a tepid recovery. And some principled conservatives believe that letting people keep more of their own money will be morally and economically desirable even if the growth effects of the Trump tax cuts don’t pay for themselves.
But what’s always been weird about Ryan was the way he enjoyed a reputation as a deficit hawk when his voting record suggested nothing of a sort. He’s speechified as a deficit hawk, but he’s governed as a Republican partisan. He’s clamored for austerity when he’s been in the minority, trashing Democrats as profligate budget-busters, but he’s happily busted budgets in the majority. Today’s USA Today story on his retirement quoted him saying his biggest accomplishments were the $1.5 trillion tax cut and this February’s budget deal that ratcheted military spending above $700 billion; the story also described him as a “fiscal conservative.”
In that sense, Ryan is a perfect spokesman for his party. Republicans still enjoy a reputation as the fiscally conservative party, even though deficits expanded under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and shrunk under Bill Clinton and Obama, even though they’re expanding again under Trump and the Republican Congress. Dick Cheney supposedly said that Reagan proved deficits don’t matter, and he was certainly correct when it came to politics and branding.
This week, Ryan will lead House Republicans as they vote on a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, the same federal budget they have proven constitutionally incapable of balancing on their own. It will be a vote of political theater, with no practical consequence for Washington’s fiscal trajectory. The national debt has soared from $5 trillion when Ryan came to Washington to $21 trillion today, and the deficit is expected to increase 50 percent by 2020 no matter what the House decides to say about the desirability of a balanced budget. Ryan’s reputation for fiscal responsibility and tough choices will probably continue to flourish, along with the fiscal mess he will leave behind him in Washington.
Ryan, at least, likes what he’s done to the federal budget. “I like to think I’ve done my part, my little part in history, to set us on a better course,” he said today.
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