Behind the scenes with Paul Ryan
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At age 42, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is the first member of my generation to run on a presidential ticket. He’s also the first vice-presidential candidate I happen to know personally.
I got to know Ryan when he and New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu grabbed hold of the third rail of American politics. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that if you touch Social Security, you die. The conventional wisdom in Washington is right less often than a stopped clock.
As Sununu’s lead staffer for Social Security, I got to be in the room as Ryan, a former Hill staffer himself, and Sununu, an engineer did something few members of Congress normally bother to do themselves. They wrote a bill.
Over the next two years, they put together a comprehensive plan to save Social Security, converting it from a pay-as-you-go transfer program into a fully-funded retirement benefit. Provisions were honed to address unintended consequences, and the guiding principle was getting a plan that worked. Math trumped politics.
It’s easy to get cynical working in Washington, surrounded by so many shallow and self-serving hacks, many of whom have their names on the door. Watching Ryan work kept me from becoming jaded. It’s not that Ryan ignored politics. Instead of evading the entitlement debate, he and Sununu leaned into it. Ryan thought it was good politics to produce a detailed plan, and he know it well enough to defend it in public.
Instead of pandering to seniors by saying Social Security was sacrosanct, they told seniors that their plan was the only way to keep it around for their children and grandchildren. Ryan knew it wasn’t enough to talk about fixing a problem that would affect generations of Americans. He knew you had to show that your solutions worked. After two years, and dozens of meetings, we came out with an elegant bill that addressed every major concern posed by opponents of Social Security reform. The experience taught me how bills should be written.
The Ryan-Sununu bill was introduced in 2005. President Bush was unwilling to back a specific plan. Supportive lawmakers didn’t want to tie themselves to numbers that could be used against them. Ryan-Sununu didn’t make it out of committee.
Democrats took over both Houses in 2006. Jeanne Shaheen beat Sununu in their 2008 rematch, and Washington went back to ignoring the looming fiscal crisis that threatens to swallow the entire federal budget. Until last year.
Now in charge of the House Budget Committee, Ryan continued his forthright approach to writing the budget. His insistence on providing a detailed roadmap to fiscal sanity scared the pants off many of his Republican colleagues. They love talking about balancing budgets but don’t want their fingerprints on the controversial cuts needed to get it done. The Ryan roadmap is a fairly mod-
est attempt to hold down the growth in federal spending over three decades, while also restructuring Medicare to put it on sound financial footing.
Democrats relish the chance to attack Mitt Romney and the Republican ticket for Ryan’s Medicare proposal. And if the GOP is defensive about the idea, such attacks could be fatal. But if they lean into the issue, and force the Obama Administration to defend its decision to take $716 billion out of Medicare, they can win. If Republicans hold the high ground on Medicare, the Democrats will need to pick another battlefield.
The surest way to End Medicare As We Know It! is to do nothing. Medicare as we know it is going broke. Doctors and hospitals lose money on every Medicare and Medicaid patient, pushing the costs onto patients with private insurance. Higher insurance premiums are the hidden subsidy that we all pay to support Medicare and Medicaid, and the programs are still unsustainable.
You don’t have to like Ryan’s Medicare plan, but at least he has one. Any candidate promising to save Medicare through inaction is not to be taken seriously.
New Hampshire Congressman Charlie Bass faced a similar dilemma over his support of the Simpson-Bowles budget plan. The bipartisan panel recommended both spending cuts and tax increases, making it political kryptonite for both parties. But Bass has backed Simpson-Bowles, arguing that he’ll support a compromise package if it keeps the U.S. from following Greece over the cliff. Anyone attacking Bass should be willing to produce spreadsheets showing how they would do the same.
If you don’t like Romney and Ryan’s ideas on entitlement reform, or Bass’s budget-balancing plan, don’t vote for them. But at least find a candidate willing to stand behind a proposal you can support. Any politician too afraid to tell you how he or she would tackle the toughest problems facing the state or the nation simply hasn’t earned your vote.
Like him or not, we’re all better off with Paul Ryan on a national ticket. He helps define what a Romney presidency would mean, to the delight of conservatives and liberals alike. And his political courage should force the Obama-Biden campaign to tell us how they would steer us away from the fiscal cliff we are so rapidly approaching.
Grant Bosse is vice president for media for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Concord.
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