Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP’s high priest of pecuniary politics, has ascended to the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee. Across the land, fiscal conservatives applaud the rise of the 40-year-old wonk. But the cheers in Congress are more sporadic: Unflinching endorsements of Ryan’s fiscal blueprint are rare. Apparently, the new majority is in no mood — yet — for a full-spectrum fight on entitlements.
With fanfare, Ryan last year published “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” a comprehensive government-shrinking document that tackles the three main problems in the federal budget: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Its bold, data-fueled approach was the single best piece of evidence that Republicans were ready to address long-term liabilities.
Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, now the No. 2 and No. 3 Republicans in the House, went so far as to include a chapter about the measure in Young Guns, the best-selling campaign manifesto they coauthored with Ryan. Thirteen House Republicans signed on to the plan. Sarah Palin and former House majority leader Dick Armey urged the faithful to rally ’round.
But as Ryan preps for a spring budget battle, Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner, and others are not showing much eagerness to take up the roadmap’s specifics. Ryan’s project, which proposes we curb the looming debt crisis by moving toward a defined-contribution model for entitlements over the next several decades, languishes.
Nevertheless, with Ryan now holding real power, along with a burgeoning national profile, Republicans will be forced to choose how aggressively to act on his big ideas — even if it makes them uncomfortable. With a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, chances for major policy change are slim. But the public will eye how Republicans fight — to see if they’re serious about finding a solution.
On Capitol Hill, praise for the Wisconsin Republican comes easy and often, full-scale endorsement of the roadmap less so. Most leading first-year legislators temper their words when discussing the plan. “I think it’s a good start; it’s not perfect,” says Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.). “We have to be able to be flexible.”
Rep. Kristi Noem (R., S.D.), a member of the House leadership team, tells us she likes portions of the roadmap, such as Ryan’s caps on spending, but “beyond that, I haven’t explored too far.”
Rep. Steve Chabot (R., Ohio), who returned to Congress this month after losing his seat in 2008, takes a similar tack. “We are still studying it, what the implications might be for the budget,” he says. “I’m not ready to announce a position. I’m sure there are parts of it that we agree with — probably the vast majority of it — but there may be some things we have problems with. We need more time.”
Rep. Patrick Meehan, a freshman from Pennsylvania, is “reserving judgment.” So is Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.). “It’s something we are digging through slowly,” he says. “I’m not prepared to make a statement on that.” Others point out that they like Ryan’s push to simplify the tax code and his focus on the debt, but become evasive when pressed for their opinion of its adjustments to Medicare and Social Security.
Rep. Sean Duffy (R., Wis.), a freshman and a close friend of Ryan’s, understands the nervous response by many in his class. “This is Paul Ryan’s vision,” he explains. “Many members in the freshman class would be able to tell you a few good things about Paul’s roadmap, but could they all go out there and defend it? No.”
A “wholesale endorsement” of the roadmap, Duffy adds, is likely not forthcoming: “I have not heard a swell of support saying, ‘Let’s go endorse Paul’s roadmap.’”
Cantor, the House majority leader, brushes back the idea that House Republicans are wary of Ryan. But he, like the others, is not championing the roadmap as the House GOP budget strategy. Instead, he tells NRO, the leadership is encouraging Ryan to craft a flinty budget for the remainder of the fiscal year. By addressing Washington’s discretionary-spending levels first, Republicans, Cantor argues, can “demonstrate that we are serious about cutting spending and getting our debt under control.”
Beyond that, things get a bit murkier, but Cantor does see an opportunity for aspects of the roadmap to become policy. “I am supportive of the direction that Paul is headed,” he says. Still, he cautions, “as you know, the budget is something that is [scored] within the budget window for the next ten years. I’m hopeful that we can get elements of what Paul is aiming for incorporated.” Regarding entitlements, however, the roadmap really takes hold beyond that point.
In an interview at his committee office, Ryan acknowledges that convincing his colleagues to back the plan in its entirety will be an uphill climb. “Look, I never said this was a take-it-or-leave-it plan,” he points out. But he remains hopeful: “My sense is that Republicans see the world differently than they did a few years ago.”
House Democrats, freshly in the minority, sense an opportunity to needle Republicans. “They are caught between their rhetoric and reality,” Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) notes in an interview with NRO. “Ryan is legit on this, but I don’t think the rest of them are. Maybe that’s partly why they gave him this power — so they can hide behind him.”
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D., N.Y.) echoes that line. “Republicans like to point to Ryan as their thought leader but appear to be deeply ambivalent about his thoughts,” he muses.
For House Republicans, the plan presents a straightforward choice: a detailed party line on bloated entitlements, or a roadmap not taken.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Andrew Stiles, a Franklin fellow, contributed to this report.