A Paul Ryan vice-presidency: America’s next prime minister?
Aug 28th 2012, 23:08 by G.I. | TAMPA & WASHINGTON
[Greg Ip] Anyone who has watched the excitement among Republicans since Paul Ryan was picked as the vice-presidential nominee can’t help concluding that while Mitt Romney might be the Republican party’s candidate, Mr Ryan is its leader. This is more than just because of the power and appeal of his ideas. It’s also a reflection of the philosophy of governance he represents in Congress. If he brings that same philosophy to a Romney administration it could have profound effects on how America is governed.
Mr Ryan is regarded by both supporters and detractors as a man of substance (though they disagree vehemently on whether that substance is good or bad). You wouldn’t know it from his 13 years as a legislator, in which he hasn’t done much legislating. He has sponsored 71 bills but only two have become law: one renaming a post office in his district, the other reducing the tax on arrow shafts.
This in itself is unremarkable; thousands of bills are introduced, few are passed. Barack Obama had an undistinguished record in the senate. But that had more to do with his short tenure and his aversion to acquiring a messy legislative record that could doom his presidential ambitions. Mr Ryan owes his lack of accomplishment to just what his fans love most about him: a devotion to causes on which he is unwilling to compromise. Early in his career those causes were often quixotic; my personal favourite was a bill to pay countries that adopted the dollar. In recent years, those positions have come to embrace core Republican positions: stripping the Fed of any responsibility for employment, converting Social Security to private accounts, and replacing traditional Medicare with vouchers.
Mr Ryan’s rise to stardom began when he became ranking member on the House Budget Committee in 2007, and chairman in 2011 when Republicans took control of the house. One of his first acts in that job was to replace the old Paygo budget rule, which required any new spending increase or tax cut to be offset to neutralize the deficit impact, with “Cutgo,” which applied that condition only to spending. In other words, tax cuts that blow up the deficit were fine.
This was significant not for its practical effect, which was minimal, but for its symbolism. For deficits hawks, such as Mr Ryan’s Democratic predecessor, John Spratt, Paygo (which survives in a weakened statutory form) was a slender bit of steel that helped bind both parties to the common priority of fiscal balance; ideologues of both parties hated it because it raised the bar on pet projects that cost tax revenue or boosted spending. Mr Ryan’s act signaled that Republican priorities took precedence over balanced budgets.
Mr Ryan is often called author of the Republican budget. Actually, he is author of the Republican budget resolution. The definition matters. First, budget resolutions aren’t legislation. They set broad spending and revenue totals to which the appropriations and oversight committees are supposed to conform. Since resolutions by their nature skimp on detail, Mr Ryan could set out sweeping changes to taxes and spending without the scut work of having to explain where they come from. Apart from his Medicare voucher programme, Mr Ryan’s resolutions contain little practical information that can actually be turned into law. His tax reform plan can be reduced to a tweet: “reduce 6 marginal rates to 10% and 25%, close loopholes. Total revenue = 18-19% of GDP.”
Second, budget resolutions are nowadays largely irrelevant. A budget resolution takes effect when the Senate and House pass the same version. They haven’t done so in years. Mr Ryan blames that on the failure of Senate Democrats to cooperate, an argument that is only partially right. I addressed it here. Suffice to say, budget legislation these days does not come from budget resolutions but from omnibus appropriations bills, continuing resolutions, and cliff hanger deals such as that hammered out between the administration during last summer’s debt ceiling impasse. The budget committee chairmen have been bystanders.
This suits Mr Ryan just fine. There’s a reason why successful Congressmen and senators so rarely become president; their success required messy tradeoffs and deal making that can be caricatured as strange and unprincipled in the cauldron of a general election. Mr Obama pulled it off in part because he had so little record and because John McCain had been in the Senate even longer.
Mr Ryan seems to find deal making repellent. He has steadfastly resisted anything that would sully his signature positions. He has no interest in joining a grand bargain with Democrats since by definition that would require both parties to give up something. Better, he says, to offer voters a choice than to mix the alternatives. Mr Ryan was on the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission and led its three House Republican members in voting against its proposed deficit reduction plan because it raised taxes, didn’t repeal Obamacare and didn’t adopt Medicare vouchers. As Erskine Bowles said in an interview paraphrased by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Ryan “hasn’t yet crossed the political Rubicon of supporting a larger deal that includes elements he doesn’t like.”
There are many Republicans in Congress who still measure their success by the laws they get passed. John Boehner is one; Dave Camp, the low-key chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is another. Having steered several bilateral trade deals to ratification, Mr Camp is one of a few Republican leaders with something constructive to show for the last two years. But the growing clout of the tea party and Mr Ryan has made it increasingly impossible for people like Mr Boehner and Mr Camp to strike deals without risking their political careers.
Republicans now act as if America were a parliamentary democracy where the minority party’s job is to oppose everything the president does so as to hasten its own return to power. The problem is that the checks and balances between America’s two legislative branches and its executive were designed to force compromise. When one party breaks with that presumption, paralysis ensues. Of course, Democrats aren’t blameless. They stymied Mr Bush’s social security reform. Mr Obama passed his stimulus and health care plan without Republican votes, though in his defense that was more due to Republican intransigence than Mr Obama’s lack of flexibility; he altered both plans in a fruitless effort to attract Republicans.
The calculus underlying Mr Ryan’s approach to governing is that rather than deal with Democrats now, wait until Republicans control house, Senate and White House and go for everything. Even if Democrats lose the Senate they will almost certainly retain enough seats to filibuster major legislation. So for Republicans to achieve most of their agenda would require a ruthless reconciliation bill that only requires them to find 51 votes in the Senate. Whether they do this depends on how much stomach Mr Romney, and the dwindling ranks of moderate Senate Republicans, have for remaking America’s safety net without any Democratic support.
The role Mr Ryan will play is one of the most important unanswered questions about a Romney administration. Mr Romney is at heart a deal maker who cares more about getting things done than about the details. That’s why conservatives still do not trust him and why they are ecstatic over Mr Ryan’s nomination; they hope he wiill be the custodian of partisan orthodoxy within the administration. You could think of him as America’s next prime minister. That’s a title this newspaper gave to Dick Cheney in 2000. But while Mr Cheney flexed his power through the machinery of the Washington bureaucracy and his access to the president, Mr Ryan would do so through his sway over the base of his party and its rank and file in Congress.
Mr Ryan could see his job as putting ideological steel in Mr Romney’s spine any time he toys with sacrificing a core Republican idea in the pursuit of a few Democratic votes, or he could see it as giving him political cover when Mr Romney needs to sell something short of the Republican ideal. It will probably be both; but Mr Ryan’s history and temperament suggests he will do more of the first than the second.
This would feed the polarization and dysfunction that has come to characterize American government in the last decade. This began with the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 but Democrats increasingly have followed suit. The result is that when either party enacts big changes to taxes or entitlements, it is without the bipartisan backing that ensures the changes will endure. Nothing has contributed more to the infamous uncertainty of which business so often complains as the refusal of either party to accept the permanence of the other’s decisions. Democrats have wanted to rescind Mr Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy virtually since he passed them; Republicans feel the same way about Mr Obama’s health care act. Mr Romney and Mr Ryan may indeed succeed in jamming their agenda through a Democratic minority, but that simply guarantees that the next time Democrats are in power they will overturn it. If Mr Ryan succeeds in converting Medicare to vouchers but delays their introduction for 10 years, as promised, does he seriously think Democrats will not spend the next 10 years trying to undo them?
Mr Ryan deserves credit for elevating the dire state of America’s long-term fiscal outlook in the national discourse and proposing worthwhile solutions. But he and his supporters do America no favours by imbuing their solutions with a religious nobility that brooks no compromise. They risk aggravating the instability of America’s fiscal policy that contributes so much to the chronic uncertainty they claim lies at the heart of America’s ills.
The original article is linked here.