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Paul Ryan and the Poor

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Watching the proceedings on the floor of the House of Representatives on the occasion of the election and swearing-in of Rep. Paul Ryan (WI-) as the 54th Speaker of the House, one might be convinced that discord had been banished from this hallowed legislative arena and that all is well with at least one chamber of Congress.  I think Rep. Ryan may have gotten more hugs from Democrats than he did from Republicans.  Members from both sides of the aisles greeted the incoming Speaker enthusiastically hoping that the Wisconsin Republican will be the leader who can curtail the rancor in the House and make it more legislatively productive.

That’s a tall order even for someone presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared to be the intellectual leader of the Republican Party.  His party is fractured.  The 40-member Freedom Party believes it has been betrayed by the House leadership which led to the ouster of John Boehner.  Their support of Speaker Ryan is conditional on his support for their policies.  Democrats seem willing to give the new Speaker the benefit of the doubt, but they will not countenance repeated attacks on President Obama.   Outgoing Speaker John Boehner provided Ryan with an extended honeymoon when he ushered through a two-year budget plan at the consternation of the Freedom Caucus and the 167 Republicans who voted against the bill.  Speaker Ryan acknowledged the honeymoon will be brief—“about 35 minutes,” he said during hisMeet The Press interview.

promised changes in procedure.  He says he’s going to wipe the slate clean—that the House will reinstitute “regular order” and give all members a voice in proposing legislation.  Let’s see how that goes.  He promised no changes in policies or politics.  He promised not to work with the President on immigration reform and to continue to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

Speaker Ryan has established a reputation as a policy wonk and economic maven based on several glossy and well-promoted proposals.  His budget 2013 budget proposal The Path to Prosperity was excoriated by Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as not a plan but a set of assertions with magic asterisks about trillions that will be saved on to-be-announced spending cuts.  He was clear about what he would cut: Medicaid by turning it into a block grant, Medicare by transforming it into a voucher program, and taxes for corporations and the wealthy.  The National Journal rates him as the most conservative speaker in history.

Paul Ryan’s elevation to Speaker does not bode well for the poor in this country.  During a recent hearing of the House Budget Committee, conservative philosophy reverberated throughout testimony and remarks: poor people can only be helped by removing government assistance that erodes their motivation to be personally responsible.  Last year Rep. Ryan released his vaulted plan to help the nation’s poor, Expanding Opportunity in America, that Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) said would likely increase poverty and reduce resources for the poor.

In the long run, Speaker Paul Ryan may have been right when he flatly turned down the job when it was first offered.  In his new position, he must face the public—something he has not done well in the past.  Remember not long ago he was completely overwhelmed by Vice President Joe Biden during the 2012 vice presidential debate.  Sooner or later the Speaker must give straight answers.  He will have to provide specifics about the policies.  During his Meet The Pressinterview, moderator Chuck Todd repeatedly pressed him for one idea he would advance as Speaker.  Ryan would only say that Republicans would no longer be timid about their policies but will be offering a bold agenda.  As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Paul Ryan has spent the last year working on tax reform yet he could not or would not offer one specific item that he would promote as the new leader of the House Republican Caucus.

I do not want to be a hater, and I sincerely hope Paul Krugman, Bob Greenstein and a host of others are wrong about the new Speaker.  I really hope those Democrat who recalled how much they enjoyed working with him are spot on.  I sincerely hope he proves me wrong.  But my guess is the months leading up to November 2016 are going to be pretty ugly.

Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. is President the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. He has served as deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns and was the staff coordinator for the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

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