Paul Ryan Is No Moderate. Just Check the Record

Paul Ryan Is No Moderate. Just Check the Record

The new House speaker’s career-long crusade against welfare, women’s rights, and corporate accountability belie his image as a “moderate” Republican.

Ryan on the campaign trail in 2012 (Tony Alter / Flickr)

For a forty-five-year-old already anointed as the Republicans’ “big thinker” by a fawning Beltway press corps, picked in 2012 as the party’s vice-presidential nominee, and serving as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Paul Ryan’s assumption of the House speaker role is another big step up the ladder of power.

Ryan enters as a widely lauded savior, reluctantly but heroically acceding to popular Republican demand, with a mission of uniting the party’s ultra-conservative majority and the even more fanatical “Freedom Caucus.” And with outgoing speaker John Boehner having secured a budget deal that frees Ryan from having to negotiate over the debt ceiling and funding for the Export-Import Bank, which have divided Republicans, Ryan can merely declare that the deal “stinks” while maintaining his conservative street cred with the Tea Partiers.

In the context of his stepping in to move Congress beyond paralysis, it becomes all too easy for Ryan to be cast by pundits and fellow politicians alike as a moderating force. Quickly forgotten is the appalling record that he has accumulated. A longtime devotee of Ayn Rand and a favorite of the Koch brothers, Ryan has fervently and consistently fought to cushion corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent with more government benefits and lower taxes, while welcoming the economic disruption that has shuttered factories and ravaged communities across the country.

In Ryan’s world of job-creating “makers” and slothful “takers,” he has always sought to reward those he portrays as virtuous. He has warned that programs like extended unemployment benefits, food stamps, and foreclosure protection could create “a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” To head off this nightmare, Ryan has repeatedly proposed to cut food stamps by some $135 billion over ten years.

Despite coming under fire from fellow Catholics, Ryan has kept up a rhetorical war stigmatizing those marginalized by an increasingly ruthless economy. He has repeatedly come under fire for the racist stereotypes underlying his economic rhetoric; last year, Ryan blamed inner-city unemployment on the “tailspin of culture” that has created “just generations of men not even thinking about working.” He expressed alarm, too, that government school-lunch programs somehow degrade children who need the food, providing them with a “full belly but an empty soul.” A few months later, commenting on Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, Ryan painted the city (83 percent black) as a dystopia created by government over-spending. “When I look at Detroit I see a warning about what our country might face if we do not rethink how we are governing ourselves.”

Ryan built much of his reputation on what passed in Washington as prudent, far-sighted budgeting to eliminate federal deficits—although economists like Paul Krugman have repeatedly shown that Ryan’s numbers never add up to balance the budget. Ryan’s various schemes for reducing the deficit have all been premised on slashing social programs and “voucherizing” Medicare. In the name of job creation, Ryan has been an ardent supporter of the kind of free trade deals, from the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), that have hastened the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs in his southeast Wisconsin district.

As Budget Committee chair, Ryan used his leverage in negotiating with Democratic Senator Patty Murray in late 2013 to pass a budget deal that the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ Robert Greenstein described as “Robin Hood in reverse—on steroids. It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history).” As part of the deal, Ryan successfully blocked an extension of unemployment benefits, terminating aid to an estimated 1.3 million people and their families.

Ryan’s contempt for government programs that aid the vulnerable is matched by his empathy for corporations and banks. Besides voting for both the finance and auto-industry bailouts, he has been preoccupied with the corporate tax rate, officially set at 35 percent, which, he says, is hobbling competitiveness and forcing businesses to relocate offshore. Earlier this month, he speculated that the 35 percent statutory tax rate was responsible for General Electric’s recently announced move of 350 jobs from Wisconsin to Canada.

Ryan’s diagnosis of the GE move is acutely deceptive. GE in fact averaged a tax rate of negative 9 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to the watchdog group Citizens for Tax Justice. More generally, the effective tax rate paid by U.S. corporations hovers around 13 percent—lower than Canada’s 15 percent, and among the lowest in the OECD. Yet, ignoring the widespread pattern of tax avoidance by giant multinationals, Ryan and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned in favor of exempting all foreign operations of U.S. corporations from any taxes.

Ryan’s choice for his chief of staff, J. David Hoppe, shares the new speaker’s fixation on reducing corporate taxes. Hoppe is a high-profile lobbyist whose clients have included Cayman Finance, an industry group that seeks to “promote the development of the Cayman Islands financial services industry”—and is now threatened by legislation aimed at cracking down on offshore tax havens.

While Ryan is mostly credited, among Beltway pundits, as a towering master of fiscal policy, he has also been notably active in seeking to deny reproductive rights to women. He has joined none other than Todd “legitimate rape” Akin in backing various pieces of legislation that would restrict women’s right to choose. And Ryan steadfastly backed the U.S. Council of Archbishops’ position calling for employer control over contraception coverage for workers, a position eventually adopted in essence by the right-wing majority of the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case.

But, for perhaps the most revealing picture of Ryan and the budget policies he helped to craft, one need only look to his struggling hometown of Janesville. After General Motors’ closing of its huge plant just before Christmas 2008, the city of 63,000 soon faced a rash of social problems. The number of battered women seeking shelter nearly tripled. Hunger, homelessness, and home foreclosures mounted. With few decent jobs available, much-touted retraining programs largely flopped. Unemployment benefits ran out for many.

But Ryan steeled himself against any efforts to respond to the needs of his former neighbors. He opposed an extension of jobless benefits, fought for cuts to food stamps, rejected the notion of expanding healthcare coverage, and stood against increased help for families facing danger of foreclosure. His positions have resulted in embarrassing election results, with Ryan not only failing to carry his home state but losing even his home district in the 2012 president race.

Whatever gestures he might make toward “compromise” with the Democrats, Paul Ryan’s tenure as Speaker of the House promises only more of the same disastrous policies he’s championed for the last fifteen years. As 2016 looms, Ryan will likely work overtime to divert the insecure and shrinking middle class’s anxiety and resentment toward those “takers” further down the economic ladder. It may help his party a bit. But with the fate of those in the middle becoming only more precarious over the last four years, Ryan may face an ever tougher task defending the Republican cause than he did in 2012.

Roger Bybee is a long-time writer, labor activist, and instructor in Labor Studies at the University of Illinois.

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