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.
The back-and-forth at these sessions played a critical role in convincing leadership to press for deeper spending cuts — $100 billion compared with Obama’s 2011 request — in the recently passed continuing resolution. Additionally, the message that party leaders were hearing from freshmen at the meetings in many ways spurred their decision to go all-in on entitlement reform. For new members champing at the bit to get Washington’s fiscal house in order, and a Republican leadership dedicated to an open process allowing congress to “work its will,” the meetings have been a resounding success.
“You’ve got to have the open lines of communication,” Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.) tells National Review Online. “When you’ve got 85 new members, who are one third of the GOP conference, [the sessions] give us the opportunity to say, ‘Here are our perspectives, and we’re here to make things happen.’” And party leaders, as well as new members, stand to benefit. “It strengthens leadership and lets them know we’ve got their back,” he says.
Communication will be critical in the months ahead as Ryan drafts a Republican budget for 2012 that, as promised, will tackle what has heretofore been the third rail of entitlement spending. For their part, the freshman class appears ready to press ahead. “I think we must,” says Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.), a member of the House Budget Committee. “I haven’t come a cross another freshman who feels any differently.” A House Republican aide says there is a “hardcore appetite” among freshmen to deal with entitlements, but the real challenge will be one of education and messaging.
Most new members didn’t exactly campaign on sweeping changes to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and were generally cautious when it came to specific proposals. For instance, many were hesitant to embrace Ryan’s “Roadmap” on the campaign trail. The few who did were relentlessly demagogued by the Left, an experience that will likely pale in comparison to the political onslaught to come once Republicans release their plan.
The listening sessions will allow Ryan to keep members in the loop as to what entitlement reform would look like and provide a venue for everyone to voice concerns. “Whether it’s something that you feel comfortable with or not, it still has to be talked about and discussed,” Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Pa.) says of the conversation about entitlements. Open discussions will be key not only to crafting a suitable plan, but also to selling that plan to voters. “In my business [a chain of car dealerships], anytime we would come out with a new product, it’s always about educating the buying public: Do you have a better product? Is it a better price? And if you have to cut back, you explain why you need to cut back,” Kelly says.
One might expect that managing 85 new members would be a challenge. On the contrary, Roskam says, it’s “invigorating.” “These freshmen came to Washington to do something not to be somebody,” Roskam says. “They came to get the country’s fiscal house in order.” They’re certainly off to a good start. As the spending fights continue on Capitol Hill, and even as the going gets tough, at least they know they’ll be in good hands. As Nunnelee says: “When Paul Ryan talks about the budget, you listen.”
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin fellow.