Paul Ryan's Fiscal Legacy: Lots of Red Ink

Paul Ryan's Fiscal Legacy: Lots of Red Ink

House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election this year and will retire at the end of his term in January, becoming the most prominent in a wave of Republican lawmakers who have said they will leave Congress in the runup to dicey midterm elections.

“You all know that I did not seek this job,” Ryan said. “I took it reluctantly, but I have given this job everything that I have. And I have no regrets whatsoever for having accepted this responsibility.”

Ryan was drafted by his colleagues to succeed John Boehner as speaker in October 2015. His retirement, at the age of 48, will have broad political ripple effects. He’s leaving at a time when Republican control of the House after the midterm elections appears to be in doubt and with the party still riven by simmering internal tensions — and at a moment when the relationship between congressional Republicans and President Trump is the subject of much criticism and scrutiny.

“Ryan is leaving a Republican conference that is arguably more splintered than when he got the job, this time along new lines: Trumpers and non-Trumpers,” The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips writes. “So when Ryan retires at the end of this year, House Republicans will face another fork in the road: Do they fully embrace President Trump's Washington, or do they try to find another uniter who can try to hold onto everything the Republican Party was before Trump, too?”

As the party looks to chart its path forward, Ryan’s announcement will set off a race for the leadership of the House Republican Conference, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise mentioned as likely contenders.

As that jockeying plays out, the election looms large. And while Ryan pledged to help his fellow Republicans in their efforts to keep control of the House, and said he believed the conference is “in good hands with what I believe is a very bright future,” his departure could be another blow to the GOP’s election prospects, sapping morale and possibly dampening fundraising.

“Mr. Ryan has become the party’s most important fund-raiser in the House and Republicans have been counting on him to help them collect and spend tens of millions of dollars defending their majority this fall,” The New York Times notes.

Paul Ryan’s Fiscal Legacy

President Trump tweeted Wednesday that Ryan “is a truly good man, and while he will not be seeking re-election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question.”

Fact-checkers might take issue with that last part.

Ryan has been in Congress for nearly 20 years, serving as chair of the House Budget Committee for four years and as head of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee for 10 months before becoming speaker. For much of that time he has been held aloft as the Republican Party’s primary budget wonk and policy visionary. He was the architect of the party’s controversial budget blueprints, warned frequently about the dangers of deficits and rising debt and consistently championed tax reform as well as sweeping changes to entitlements programs, including plans to partially privatize Medicare.

Ryan on Wednesday pointed to two achievements he considered his biggest accomplishments as speaker: the major overhaul of the tax code enacted last year, which he called “something I’ve been working on my entire adult life,” and increased military spending, which was part of the spending bill passed last month.

Conservatives were effusive in their praise for Ryan on Wednesday. “When it comes to fiscal legacies, no speaker of the House has a record even approaching that of Paul Ryan,” Ryan Ellis, tax policy director for the Conservative Reform Network, wrote at the Washington Examiner, citing three major accomplishments: tax reform, spending cuts enacted as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 and drawing attention to entitlement reform — “normalizing” the idea, as Ryan himself put it Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called Ryan a “transformational conservative leader” and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) said Ryan’s efforts will have lasting effects: “He’s been working on fundamental tax reform for 20 years and now he’s gotten it done. He’s been working on entitlement reform. It may not happen on his watch but they were working on Obamacare before Obama was even born,” Hensarling said. “Some of these ideas will be achieved in one Congress, some will take many congresses. But he was the one who really showed the way.”

But criticism from the left has been voluminous, and cutting. Here’s Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, for example:

The dream of Social Security privatization that launched his policy relevance is dead. The Medicare privatization plan that relaunched his policy relevance is also dead. His reputation as a deficit hawk has been exposed as a sham. He didn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he didn’t undo the Obama administration’s financial regulations. The year isn’t over yet, but Congress has basically abandoned hope of doing anything else.

Even the GOP tax overhaul, Yglesias notes, didn’t follow Ryan’s preferred “high-minded” model for fundamental reform, as Republicans opted for large, deficit-financed tax cuts instead.

The bottom line: Yes, Ryan helped push through a massive tax cut package with remarkable speed, but by several measures his immediate fiscal legacy is largely one of failure.

“Ryan fell well short of achieving his most cherished goal: Revamping U.S. entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — that absorb an increasingly large share of annual budgets,” MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash writes, adding that Ryan’s retirement signals that changes to those programs are “dead.”

Meanwhile, deficits have risen from $438 billion in 2015 to a projected $804 billion this year, and are on a path to surpass $1 trillion in 2020 and climb higher from there. The debt held by the public has risen from $13.04 trillion on the day he became speaker to $15.46 trillion now. Politico’s Michael Grunwald looks at Paul Ryan’s legacy of red ink here. The subtitle on his piece: “The speaker of the House’s reputation as a budget hawk has somehow survived his actual record.”

Ryan “spent two decades in Congress talking about reining in Washington’s profligate ways and overhauling the nation’s ballooning entitlement programs. He touted those views as the GOP’s  candidate in 2012. He will depart Congress with his goals undone,” The Washington Post’s Erica Werner and Damian Paletta write. “Ryan has sounded the alarm about the nation’s deficit and debt for years, but leaves the situation worse than he found it despite proposing a series of budgets over the years that slashed spending and transformed Medicare into a voucher program for younger Americans.”