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Ryan’s Principled Entitlement Reform Vs. McConnell’s Realism of Low Expectations

It’s a new year, and Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell enter it with a sense of momentum on the heels of major tax reform. That momentum is unlikely to last for one of two reasons. What seems most likely is that Republicans will either keep thinking big and fail, or they’ll limit themselves to thinking small and it won’t matter whether or not they succeed.

A couple of weeks ago Politico reported that Paul Ryan is eyeing an exit. They reported that the Speaker, on the heels of his tax reform victory, is looking to ride out of Washington after the midterms in 2018. After all, he never wanted the job in the first place.

Progressives and purist conservatives and libertarians may be united for once in envisioning, after hearing this, a meme of Tombstone’s Curly Bill sneering out the words “Well… bye”. A Monty Python narrator may echo “and there was much rejoicing”.

Paul Ryan has been a much better Speaker than his predecessors 

By my reckoning, however, Paul Ryan has been the best and most respectable speaker of the House of my lifetime thusfar. This may be damning with faint praise, following up the likes of Boehner, Pelosi, hell… Hastert. But he’s a step in the right direction, which often seems like the only kind of progress available in real-world modern American politics… and it’s hard to imagine any likely replacement being an improvement.

Post-midterms are too far away and there are simply too many house members to waste too much time thinking whether his replacement might be the likes of a McCarthy, Scalise, or Labrador. What does seem worth considering is what Ryan will do with the time he has left, freed from long term political calculations and trying to hold the reins on an entire branch of Congress.

I’m not sure if this is a theory or merely wishful thinking, but if he’s planning to step down next year, he may try to push though entitlement reform. Granted, such a move could hurt Republicans in the midterms, but what’s the point of winning elections if nothing actually changes but the numbers in the bank accounts of politicians?

In Paul Ryan’s book, he describes his first meeting with the then-new Vice President, Dick Cheney. Although newly elected to Congress, he was chosen to be one of just a few House members to meet with him in order to pitch ideas for what the top priority should be for the new administration’s first term. They were each given a couple of minutes to make their case, and he used his to sell social security reform:

“The surplus has given us a huge opportunity,” I explained. “If we dedicate the Social Security surplus to reform, we can shore up the program and end the raid on the trust fund.” I talked about the opportunity to create a real ownership society, how workers could actually own a piece of the free enterprise system through these reforms.

As soon as I finished my pitch, Vice President Cheney said, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.” Then he looked at the person sitting next to me, signaling that he was ready to hear the next idea. His terse reply was the verbal equivalent of someone swatting an annoying mosquito from his face.”

Back then, in the debate over what to do with the budget surplus (imagine such a thing), the schism among Republicans was whether to use it solely for tax cuts, or to use it for another purpose. Ryan’s take was that it should be used to “fully fund reform and the transition to personal accounts”.

Reforming entitlements is still Paul Ryan’s commitment

Back to today, Ryan’s tax bill has passed. He has a limited amount of time left that he plans to be speaker, and need not worry about reelection. His party has changed before his eyes into something less like him and more like Trump, leaving him with less incentive to avoid reforms in order to achieve a mid-term victory for a group that cares less about fiscal discipline than they do about immigrants.

The question is… are these factors enough to remind Ryan of the idealism he expressed seventeen years ago to Cheney, and seems to have motivated him into politics as a policy wonk rather than demagogue? Is he willing to fight for some of these beliefs even when a Republican White House may be anywhere from indifferent to actively opposed? Or has he been in Washington swamp long enough to have been fully corrupted and reprogrammed to defend the status quo?

I’d like to believe that this kid from Janesville still believes in the Jack Kemp version of the Republican Party, focused on important but realistically achievable policy reforms. A belief that structural changes to entitlements are more important than who stands for the anthem or uses what bathroom, and that it’s ideas rooted in fiscal conservatism and a willingness to acknowledge reality that should be animating his party–not a willingness to deny basic facts for cultural concerns and mindless populism.

If the words of the past couple of weeks are any indication, Paul Ryan not only wants entitlement reform, he wants it for his legacy.

Mitch McConnell’s realism meets Paul Ryan’s optimism head on

Preemptively, it seems, McConnell has declared in no uncertain terms that entitlement reform absolutely won’t be on the agenda for the next year in the Senate. His approach is based less on the truths that math tells about the actual sustainability of entitlements in their current form, and more on the truths that the math tells him with simple counting of votes.

Last year with a 52-48 Senate, he wasn’t able to undo Obamacare, an opposition to which is one of the few areas left unifying Republicans. This year, he’ll have an even slimmer 51-49 majority after Alabama’s seat turned blue, and traditional entitlements have traditionally been referred to as the third rail of politics.

There may be 51 Republicans in the Senate at the start of the year, but nobody would confuse that with 51 conservatives, willing to support entitlement reform (especially in an election year).

McConnell’s grand vision? Infrastructure. The least sexy, least divisive, least inspiring, most milquetoast bipartisan issue he could find.

Further, I doubt he’ll even go with any right-leaning reforms to infrastructure, rather than “new, shovel-ready projects” to “fix our crumbling infrastructure”. These are words that are trot out and accepted every time whether the description fits or whether it results in bridges to nowhere or whether Gary Johnson’s “next door neighbor’s dogs have created more shovel ready projects” than whatever the legislation results in.

Passing infrastructure spending in any form is McConnell’s priority

What could infrastructure legislation look like if McConnell focused more on the fact that Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress and the Presidency, rather than how slim their majority is in the Senate?

The federal government could easily give responsibility for the maintenance of currently existing interstate highways to the states these highways reside in. That could free up revenue from the federal gas tax to fund new projects like, say… a highway from Houston to Chattanooga that runs through Jackson and Huntsville, the proposed Interstate 3 from Savannah to Knoxville, or even simply to help pay down our massive debt.

The federalist argument is obvious. States and localities know better which roads and bridges actually need fixing (or building) than central planners in DC looking at the country as a whole through the lens of lobbyists. Given that states often fund infrastructure maintenance with gas taxes as well, those who use and benefit from roads in specific states are the ones paying for them. There’s no reason that Hawaii residents should be funding our “interstate” system, nor any reason there should be “interstate” roads on that island.

Of course, what’s more likely is that McConnell will simply throw money at “muh roads”, with lobbyists for pet pork projects writing much of the bill, with no eye towards federalism or our debt or the data whatsoever. I’d like him to prove me wrong, but years of following politics have left all my expectations of Washington low.

Now, McConnell may be right that Ryan’s preferred bills can’t pass, but he’s wrong about at least one of his assumptions, that all Democrats would vote against all types of entitlement reform.

Sure, I doubt a single one would vote for private accounts, raising the retirement age, or most reforms in benefit calculations. However, enough would sign on to “lockboxing” the trust fund, which some major Democrats have historically supported and even lead on. It would have no immediate effect, given the SS portion of FICA has been paying out more than it’s been taking in for years, and I’m sure any legislation would give the general fund time to figure out how to pay back the money it already raided as the treasury notes mature. But all it would take is a future raise in either the retirement age or FICA contributions for it to matter once again.

Republicans still have a chance to accomplish great things in 2018

Politics is the art of the possible, and is constrained by numerous factors, from percentages to populism. Politicians are elected by the fickle and funded by the corrupt. When asked to choose between lower taxes and less programs, modern Americans tend to say “yes”.

In general, the average American voter thankfully has the luxury of worrying more about their family, their job, and their football than learning enough about economic and legal theory to make the most informed choices they can at the ballot box, and those who pump the most money or time into campaigns often care more about their own interests than the interests of the country.

Because of this, it’s entirely possible that McConnell sees himself constrained more by reality than his own lack of spine. Even if he succeeds, it won’t much matter.

Ryan, for his part, is smart enough to realize that entitlement reform with the current makeup of Congress may be a Hail Mary shot, but it’s the last one that he has. Even if he doesn’t succeed, let it not be said that he didn’t try.

(Photo of U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) (L) and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) speaking to members of the media in front of the West Wing of the White House February 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. Ryan and McConnell had a meeting with President Donald Trump earlier by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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