Okay, today, let’s talk about entitlement reform.
Try envisioning a scenario where you’re a politician positioned behind a lectern in front of an enthusiastic room full of supporters. You utter the above magic “entitlement reform” words and eighty-percent of the attendees proceed to leave the space. Suddenly you realize there isn’t a topic on earth or in politics that gets people more petrified – or animated in a bad way -- than the notion of trimming (a nice word for cutting) some entrenched government program, or, at the very least, limiting its growth.
Broaching the subject of entitlement reform ranks up there in popularity with discussing the disposition of property with family members in a will or waxing over the possibility that you could need a lung transplant someday if you continue blowing that asbestos dust all over the place when servicing your own car’s brakes. Or stating plainly to Democrats and the GOP’s Liz Cheney-like neoconservative remnants that it’s in America’s best interest to pull all but humanitarian aid for Ukraine to stave off a deeper war commitment for the entire European continent. Everyone knows there’s danger in delaying the inevitable, yet putting off mentioning topics like entitlement reform for another day is usually preferable to stirring up a hornet’s nest at the holiday dinner table. We don’t even need alcohol to fuel that dumpster fire of a good-time killer.
I’ve always loved Aesop’s old saying, “After all is said and done, there’s a lot more said than done.” We might as well carve these words into the walls of the House chamber as Republicans prepare to ride their razor thin majority into the next Congress. With such a miniscule margin for error – and a host of salient issues already occupying the leaders’ brain space (if not the docket) – it’s highly unlikely that the timid and risk averse GOP higher-ups would dare tackle the proverbial “third rail” that is entitlements.
Yet one former Republican Speaker recently commented that entitlement reform isn’t quite as politically hazardous as it used to be. Most conservatives weren’t wild about the way Paul Ryan handled his Speaker’s duties when he had the chance a half decade ago, but if there’s one area where the Badger State native maintains some token of credibility, it’s with the federal budget.
In a piece titled “Paul Ryan: Entitlement Reform ‘Not As Toxic As It Used To Be’”, Phil Wegmann reported at Real Clear Politics:
“Fiscal conservatism was in vogue when Ryan was on Capitol Hill, and his party won majorities in both the House and the Senate while running on a platform to rein in federal spending and repeal Obamacare. The GOP failed to do either after taking the White House. With unified government and Ryan leading the charge, they passed a tax cut…
“What’s needed, Ryan insists, is ‘to shift the gravity of consensus in America, which takes leadership, to tackle these challenges before they tackle us.’ But the current political conversation isn’t about marginal tax rates or means-based benefits. Republicans are debating, instead, a divorce from the president who signed the Ryan tax cuts into law. After the midterms, the GOP again faces a reckoning over Donald Trump as party leader. ‘I score truly low on that fealty test,’ the former speaker laughs. ‘My views on this are pretty damn well-known.’”
Yes indeed, they are widely acknowledged. In Wegmann’s next sentence (I recommend reading the entire article if you have time), Ryan called Trump a “loser” and placed blame for losses in the last three elections (2018, 2020 and this year) squarely in the former president’s hemisphere. This is a bit curious since Republicans gained House seats in both 2020 and this year, and the lower chamber will be controlled by the GOP again after just a couple terms under the iron-fist of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
On balance, Ryan is correct about many of his fiscal proposals, just as he was on the right side a decade-plus ago with his “Roadmap” and various other plans to put America on a proper path to some semblance of budget balancing and long-term solvency. Not all conservatives agreed with the direction Ryan chose back then, but I believe most would admit he initiated a valuable conversation that should’ve led to something productive.
The problem being that there wasn’t the political will to make the changes at the time, which is where Trump entered the picture. I don’t recall the specifics, but the two parties agreed to a fiscal special committee headed by Ryan and newly reelected (in 2022) stupider-than-heck Democrat Senator Patty Murray, and they hammered out “sequesters” and cap figures that both sides surely realized no future Congress would ever abide by.
The arrangement was like a foreign arms treaty without an enforcement mechanism. Subsequent leadership discussions over raising the debt ceiling inevitably devolved into inane arguments involving “preserving the full faith and credit” of the United States, with Democrats constantly threatening government shutdowns until the Republicans caved, which, as I recall, happened every time.
Observing Mitch McConnell handling these sensitive political matters was truly painful. Try and picture Chucky Schumer (or Harry Reid before him) and Nancy Pelosi hopping up and down on one foot while plugging their noses and swearing that they’d asphyxiate themselves unless McConnell and John Boehner – or Ryan himself – agreed to give them almost all of what they demanded while offering a political pittance in return.
Or, if you prefer additional imagery, there’s the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where Sheriff Bart points a gun at his own head while threatening to pull the trigger (caution, not politically correct) until the backwards and ignorant townspeople put down their own guns and accepted his commission.
It seems every time the topic of budget reform came up in this century it produced the same result, different day. Remember “Cut, Cap and Balance”? No wonder no one believes Congress can get anything done now or ever, because they can’t. And why? Because of politics.
Donald Trump entered the political scene in 2015-16 complaining about the same lack of action on taming the budget and many, many, other important festering issues. Trump brought with him a willingness to do battle with the entrenched political establishments of both parties that had led to stalemate and inertia every single time. Did he have a specific plan for dealing with it? Not that I remember, but he got folks’ attention focused on the real enemy – Democrats and the Washington ruling class.
So, Ryan’s – and John Boehner’s – and Mitch McConnell’s -- beefs with Trump primarily involved disagreements with the new GOP leader on political tactics, not on the party’s end goals. Of course, Trump campaigned in 2016 on not touching the big federal entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), but he did promise to repeal every word of the disastrous Obamacare law (Affordable Care Act) and to replace it with a new bill that would accomplish healthcare reform without bankrupting the country.
If that isn’t “entitlement reform”, I’m not sure what else would qualify.
Yet it was Paul Ryan and then Mitch McConnell who wouldn’t stick their necks out in 2017 to help pass any of the myriad of full repeal proposals on the table. And why did they let repealing Obamacare die? Because of their political hatred and grudges regarding Donald Trump the person and his lack of deference to the GOP’s “leaders”. So, if Paul Ryan is blowing smoke now about “getting something done” outside of politics, maybe he should’ve followed his own advice when he had the opportunity to do so.
Trump just wanted to get a GOP solution passed. He even softened his original position to push the Republicans’ various negotiators to move towards consensus. Nothing worked. The GOP’s so-called “leaders” wouldn’t risk a political disaster over altering any of the established entitlements. The party still lost control of the House in 2018 – and the establishment mouthpieces blamed it all on Trump’s “personality” and tweets.
Now Paul Ryan’s reemerging from four years in the wilderness to take up his old positions on passing entitlement reform, all the while griping and complaining about political roadblocks and the continuing influence/drag of Donald Trump on the Republican Party. Rather than accept responsibility for his own role in the party’s failures when Republicans had comfortable majorities, he’s passing the buck to the controversial guy who just insisted on results and didn’t get them.
What’s the answer, baby-faced Paul? Are you intending to run for president against Trump in 2024 on an entitlement reform platform? Or will you instead move to return to Congress where your senior statesman status would guarantee you a voice in what happens going forward (starting in two years, of course). Stalwart conservative Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson was just reelected, but Democrat ultra-liberal Tammy Baldwin will be up in 2024.
Is Ryan contemplating a run for U.S. Senate in two years? Does he have the political gravitas to beat a vulnerable Democrat in his own backyard? Will conservatives even listen to him? If Donald Trump gets the GOP presidential nomination, would he endorse Ryan’s bid? I think we already know the answer to that one, though admittedly Ryan would be a huge improvement over Baldwin.
Along with everything else, we’ll see what happens. It isn’t even the end of 2022, yet.
Fact: this Congress won’t accomplish much – again, due to the intense political divisions – but what it can do is restore regular procedural order and devise a budget the old-fashioned way, through introducing legislation, marking it up in committee, voting on it and passing it on to the Senate where Chucky Schumer and his un-merry band of socialist cutthroats, nihilists, excuse makers, climate change dreamers, open borders apologists and outright kooks (yeah, John Fetterman fits here) will spot the big stack of paper and search for the nearest match to keep the building warm when the world runs out of fossil fuel power to provide comfort.
Gridlock. Heck, it’s better than another two years of discussions on whether Democrats will use the reconciliation process to pass everything they’re after. Thank goodness for small victories, Paul Ryan!
There’s no doubt that talking about entitlement reform is a hard thing to do in today’s divided political environment. Paul Ryan is right – something needs to be done to get things back on track, and relatively quickly. The GOP can start with developing a message to sell the concept to the public – and then win more elections. The question is, who will be the salesman?
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