The Corner

Ryan’s Policy Vision

As Ramesh notes below, with regard to the budget reconciliation process, both observers of the congress and some congressional Republicans have for too long implicitly viewed the passage of legislation not likely to be signed by the president as something like a waste of time. Rather than a way to develop a concrete agenda, build support for it, and show the public where Republicans stand, making the case for a conservative agenda has been seen as some kind of Kabuki Theater.

The ongoing reconciliation process is one sign that this attitude may be changing. Paul Ryan offered another such sign in a speech he delivered today about his approach to policy, as the new Speaker of the House. 

Ryan first made the case for thinking in concrete policy terms in Congress, even heading into a presidential election year:

If we want to save the country, then we need a mandate from the people. And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas. And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas. And that’s where House Republicans come in. So, our number-one goal for the next year is to put together an alternative to the Left’s agenda. 

At the conceptual core of that alternative, he suggested, would be the idea that conservatives are uniquely well positioned to help the country adapt to 21st century circumstances because of the nature of how things have changed in our economic, social, and cultural life. For all the challenges, we face, he said:

There is reason for hope—especially for conservatives. The world is proving us right. Technology is making life more decentralized. The old, top-down formulas just won’t do. For a long time, the Left has thought that if you want to solve a problem, you get a group of highly trained experts to come up with an answer and impose it on the country. Nowadays, most of us would agree, that’s the last thing you should do. The world moves just too fast. Government is always a step behind. So oddly enough, it is the progressives who are stuck in the past.

And this is the thing they miss: More bureaucracy means less opportunity—because big government and big business don’t fight each other so much as feed each other. This is how it works: Smart, talented people go into government thinking the only way to fix complicated problems is with complicated laws—laws that only people like themselves can understand. They make new bureaucracies. They put up red tape. And then? And then they go into the private sector and help businesses navigate the very maze they created. If the insurance industry does not understand how Obamacare works, why not hire the person who ran it? This works out great for them. But what about the rest of us? What about the people who can’t get ahead because costs are too high . . . or who don’t create jobs because the laws are so confusing? And so round and round the revolving door goes, all while the people stand on the sidelines.

That’s how today’s experts become tomorrow’s cronies. And that’s why we don’t think government should bulk up the bureaucracy. We think it should break up problems so people can solve them themselves. Don’t hire more bureaucrats. Don’t leave it up to their discretion. Set clear, firm rules that all of us can live by—rules that tell us what’s expected and what’s off limits. And then let the people go to work. That, to me, is the conservative insight: Don’t outsource to the bureaucracy. Crowdsource.

This general approach, and the specific ideas Ryan pointed to, aren’t going to lead to legislation that gets signed into law while President Obama is in office. But President Obama won’t be in office much longer, and if Republicans want the public to elect in his place someone who will be much friendlier to this way of governing, they should be working now to further clarify for themselves and for the country the structure, substance, and appeal of the next conservative agenda. 

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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