Before being elected to office in November, freshman representative Alan Nunnelee (R., Miss.) knew that the ballooning cost of entitlement spending was threatening the financial future of the United States. But only when he arrived in Washington did he begin to understand the full, frightening extent of the situation. “I knew it was a serious problem when I was campaigning,” Nunnelee tells National Review Online, “But not until I saw’s Paul’s graphs did I realize the magnitude.”
The Paul he is referring to is Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and, as it turns out, dean of budget studies. Since the convening of the 112th Congress, Ryan has teamed up with party leadership to conduct “listening sessions” for new GOP members to give them a rundown on the national debt and other fiscal matters, or, as one aide describes it, “Budget 101” for freshmen. The meetings have become so popular that some members, such as Nunnelee, kept coming back “three or four times.” And while the sessions were initially intended for freshmen, the surge in demand prompted party leaders to open them up to the entire conference.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) came up with the idea for the sessions. He realized that this year’s freshman class, 85 strong, would be arriving in Congress under extraordinary circumstances: The government was operating under a continuing resolution set to expire in a matter of weeks, the president was about to release his budget for 2012, and a vote to raise the federal-debt ceiling loomed on the horizon. They would all need to be brought up to speed, and fast. Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), Republican deputy whip, says the idea was to “sit down with new members, walk them through the process, give them information on the budget and the decisions they’re going to be making.”
Sessions are typically held three times a week. They are intimate affairs — normally less than ten members per session, everyone gathered around a small table — and usually last an hour, but they have been known to spill over on occasion. Ryan begins with a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by an extended and “highly interactive” question-and-answer period. Roskam is quick to emphasize that for the GOP leadership, the primary objective of the meetings is to listen, not to make a sales pitch. “It’s very much a two-way dialogue,” he says. A senior GOP aide explains: “It’s not about convincing the new members; it’s about showing them where the problems are, and the problems are even more serious than they thought.”
Ryan runs through the congressional schedule, outlining the key budget votes and dates to look forward to. The sessions are in many ways as focused on the procedural aspects of the budget as they are the substantive, in order to make sure new members are adequately prepared. “We’re trying to take away the surprises to the extent we can,” Roskam says.
Then come the charts — the first one illustrating just how small a percentage of the federal budget is devoted to non-defense discretionary spending, the portion that Republicans have been primarily focused on since taking office. He clicks to another slide comparing the national-debt trajectory under President Obama’s 2010 budget versus the Republican alternative, a proposal loosely based on Ryan’s “Roadmap” for America — the former represented by a red line that soars off into oblivion (literally off the chart) by the year 2040, the latter by a much-nicer-looking green line that stays relatively flat before gradually bringing debt levels under control. This is the chart that elicits the strongest reaction, particularly once Ryan explains the fundamental difference between the two lines, or “two futures” as described in the slides. And that is entitlement reform.