The Ryan Mobility Agenda

by Yuval Levin

This morning, Paul Ryan offered up a series of significant reforms to federal anti-poverty programs. 

He proposed, for instance, to allow states to consolidate their different forms of federal anti-poverty funding (for food stamps, cash welfare, housing assistance, and more) into a single funding stream attached to a work requirement and the sort of “individual responsibility agreements” required by the 1996 welfare reform. This would let states try different anti-poverty approaches and tailor aid to individual needs. He backed an expansion (paid for with spending cuts) of the Earned Income Tax Credit, for childless adults, and some simplification of the way the EITC (the most effective and most pro-work component of the safety net) functions. He proposed some reforms and simplifications of federal aid to higher education and some devolution of federal funds for K–12 education to the states. He endorsed a series of bipartisan ideas for sentencing reform to reduce incarceration levels and help non-violent offenders reenter society. He called for rolling back “regressive regulations” that do particular harm to low-income Americans and for easing licensing requirements and other barriers to entry to the workforce. And he proposed more rigorous analysis of the real-world effectiveness of public safety-net programs. 

The first proposal, which Ryan termed the “Opportunity Grant,” is the most novel, and would constitute the most significant transformation of the welfare system since the 1996 welfare reform. It would very much follow the model of that earlier reform, applying it to a much larger portion of the safety net. Senator Marco Rubio proposed a reform on similar principles — which was in some respects more ambitious and in some respects less so — earlier this year. Ryan’s other proposals largely involved endorsing and further elaborating ideas that have been gaining prominence in recent years. The EITC expansion is similar to another Rubio proposal (and also to an Obama administration proposal, though that version would be funded by a tax increase); the higher-ed and sentencing reforms both track (as Ryan noted) proposals offered recently by Senator Mike Lee. 

But Ryan’s endorsement of such ideas, and his formulation of the Opportunity Grant proposal, marks an important moment in the emergence of the conservative domestic agenda that has been growing broader and deeper in recent months. As the document laying out Ryan’s proposals today repeatedly notes, these ideas embody a conservative vision of public policy that sees government not as the manager of society but as an enabler of bottom-up, incremental improvements made possible by a continuous learning process on the ground. Persistent poverty is persistent because we do not know how to address it effectively. That means that rather than deliver aid through constrained, prescriptive channels, we should use aid as an incentive to draw more service providers and more ideas into the space between the citizen and the state and see what might work best. Ryan’s opportunity grant proposal is an effort to move from the first model to the second, and the rest of his proposals also seek to play this role in various ways — to give people more resources and authority and greater freedom to find new and more effective ways up from poverty. 

The logic of this approach is the same one that informed the Medicare-reform proposal that defined Ryan’s tenure as chairman of the House Budget Committee. In that case, he sought to take a grossly inefficient single-payer health entitlement and give it a greater market orientation by turning the government from an insurer into a funder — allowing seniors to choose among private insurance providers and thereby using the enormous Medicare budget as leverage to make the underlying health system more efficient rather than less so. That reform would enable enormous savings of taxpayer dollars while providing seniors the same guaranteed benefit. 

It is also the logic of the broader reform agenda that some conservatives and libertarians have been advancing in recent years, and which has increasingly been taking the form of legislative proposals. Indeed, it is becoming harder all the time to sustain the proposition that congressional Republicans aren’t engaged in the country’s major policy debates. In just the past year, we have seen proposed two major tax reforms, several pro-market Obamacare alternatives, several major safety-net-reform proposals, a higher-ed-reform proposal, several fundamental federal transportation-funding reforms, and several sentencing-reform proposals, among others. Some Republicans have also begun at last to take on corporate welfare, to rethink financial regulation, and to propose piecemeal immigration reforms that would address key problems discretely rather than in an all-or-nothing package that looks worse than nothing. 

Some of these proposals have been offered as bills, some have been more like policy papers, and of course none has gotten anywhere near the president’s desk. But has there been another twelve-month period when the minority party in Washington has put forward so many elements of a comprehensive domestic agenda? Having so much out there so long before the next presidential election can give Republicans time to debate the merits of these various ideas, to improve them in response to criticisms from both right and left, and to hone the public case for them, so that potential 2016 presidential candidates might have an arsenal of well-developed policy options to choose from.

The Democrats are not going through a similar process, to put it mildly. It would not be easy to say just what Hillary Clinton, or whoever might emerge as the Democrats’ 2016 nominee, is supposed to run on exactly. Head Start for all and a carbon tax? Some particular elements of some of the proposals Republicans have put forward have appealed to some Democrats too (like the EITC expansion and sentencing reform), but the broad vision of a leaner, more effective government far better suited to the decentralized character of 21st-century life in America has not found its match on the left. And on many core elements of a middle-class policy agenda (like health care, education, energy, and taxes) the Democrats are wedded to an unpopular status quo and have very little room to move, thanks to their electoral coalition and their reticence to raise the subject of middle-class tax increases.

The Democrats will still have Barack Obama in the White House in the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, and maybe they are confident he will be able to continue to take executive actions that set off needlessly divisive public fights, isolating groups liberals detest and scaring Democratic constituencies into imagining they are under assault when in fact they are on the offensive. That strategy has paid some political dividends against a Republican party with relatively little of its own to say to the public. Will it work against a party articulating a coherent conservative agenda and vision? Here’s hoping the Right does what it takes to find out. 

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