It is entirely fitting that two days after the Congressional Budget Office forecast the return of trillion-dollar deficits, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announced his intention to leave Congress. With Ryan will go the last illusion that Republicans are the party of fiscal discipline.
On Wednesday, Ryan became the 25th House Republican to say he wouldn’t run in November. His 20-year career began with a reputation as a conservative budget genius. He will leave having passed a spendthrift $1.5 trillion tax-cut bill and a $1.3 trillion budget bill financed heavily by borrowing.
The CBO said Monday that the tax-cut bill will boost economic growth by only about 0.7 points while raising the deficit by $1.8 trillion over the coming decade. And that’s if we don’t have a major trade war or a recession.
The good news, such as it is, is that Ryan won’t be around to argue that the deficits he helped create must be fixed by cutting Medicare and Medicaid. Ryan made his reputation as a policy wonk with lengthy “road maps” designed to reform entitlement programs. His ideas included turning Medicaid into a capped block grant program and giving seniors vouchers for private health insurance in place of traditional Medicare.
He wasn’t wrong that growth in health care spending is driving the nation’s budget problems. He was wrong in thinking that tax cuts heavily weighted to wealthy Americans and corporations would create enough growth to pay for themselves and everything else the government has to do.
He was wrong to help lead the 2009 fight against President Barack Obama’s $831 billion stimulus plan, wrong to cave on hard choices in the Simpson-Bowles budget commission report in 2012, wrong to fight against the Affordable Care Act, which could have cut the rate of medical-cost increases. For all of his conventional thinking, Mitt Romney made Ryan his 2012 vice presidential nominee.
Ryan was an Ayn Rand acolyte masquerading as a deep thinker. Ryan tried to make his allegiance to Rand’s greed-is-good libertarianism comport with his own professed allegiance to a bootstraps version of social justice Catholicism. This irritated not only Catholic bishops but extremist conservatives like Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump, who complained that Ryan is “rubbing his social-justice Catholicism in my nose every second.”
Ryan leaves his House GOP colleagues, already fearful of an anti-Trump wave in the November elections, with a dilemma. Will the next speaker (or possibly minority leader) be Trump favorite Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader? Or will it be the affable party whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, admired for his heroic recovery from a gunshot wound last summer?
With Trump in the White House, it probably doesn’t matter — very little legislating gets done anyway, and crisis is constant. No wonder Ryan is bugging out.