Paul Ryan's Attack on Cronyism Is Mostly Just Talk

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He eloquently summed up the problem with insiders who influence big government. But what evidence is there that the GOP wants to fix it?

Paul Ryan's speech to The Heritage Foundation, "Saving the American Idea: Rejecting Fear, Envy and the Politics of Division," is getting rave reviews on the right. Rush Limbaugh thought that "the whole speech was superb." The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin writes that "Ryan's tone and substance should be a reminder that politics can aspire to better things and appeal to our best and not worst instincts." She added, "Once again, a voice of sanity has spoken up."

Says Peggy Noonan:

He is doing something unique in national politics.

He thinks. He studies. He reads. Then he comes forward to speak, calmly and at some length, about what he believes to be true. He defines a problem and offers solutions, often providing the intellectual and philosophical rationale behind them. Conservatives naturally like him--they agree with him--but liberals and journalists inclined to disagree with him take him seriously and treat him with respect.

I've now watched the speech twice. My review is mixed. The long beginning is boilerplate about American ideals. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You know the drill. Then there's fodder for partisans who value being told that they're on the side of the angels while their opponents are jerks. It follows the script. The other guy is out being a dishonest demagogue, coarsening the discourse and misleading the voters while we're here fighting for everything right and true. Watching it, I thought, this is why most Americans hate watching politicians.

There are a few paragraphs arguing that President Obama is wrong to want to raise taxes on the rich for all the reasons you'd expect from a conservative Republican; a sensible observation that we're facing an alarmingly big deficit and need to reform entitlements; and an apparently incorrect assertion that Americans enjoy more class mobility than their Europeans counterparts. (That's actually a big deal since the structure of his whole political argument depends on it being true.) Mixed throughout are retellings of ongoing partisan battles that are... mighty selective.

And then the interesting part:

Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country - corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless. Ironically, equality of outcome is a form of inequality - one that is based on political influence and bureaucratic favoritism.

That's the real class warfare that threatens us: A class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society. And their gains will come at the expense of working Americans, entrepreneurs, and that small businesswoman who has the gall to take on the corporate chieftain.

Every word of that excerpt strikes me as correct, and much of it could form the basis of a sound critique of the Obama Administration. If the Republican Party and Rep. Paul Ryan were truly dedicated to tackling those problems, I'd be downright enthusiastic at the prospects of GOP advances.

But come on.

Am I to believe that the right has been zealously trying all these years to take on corporate chieftains and crony capitalists? That the folks illegitimately "atop society" are quaking in their boots at the idea of a GOP Senate and Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, or Herman Cain in the White House? Let's think about the frontrunners for the GOP nomination. Romney and Cain both supported bailing out the Wall Street banks, what many conservatives consider the most extreme, disgusting example of corporations with political influence gaming the system in memory. The Texas Enterprise Fund under Perry is a flagrant example of politicians doling out special treatment to favored corporations, and distorting the market's ability to pick winners and losers by doing it from the statehouse.

(And frequently on behalf of past or future campaign donors.)

As USA Today reports:

In 2003, Romney created the Green Energy Fund -- a $15 million program designed "to provide equity capital, loans and management assistance to Massachusetts-based renewable energy businesses."

In 2011, Romney said the federal government "should not be in the business of steering investment toward particular politically favored approaches" and criticized the Obama administration's energy policies, particularly how it invests in alternative energy.

Cain also supported the bank bailouts. In addition, "Over the past several months, businessman Herman Cain has spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash on his own books and pamphlets... The money -- which went to Cain's company T.H.E New Voice -- represented a significant percentage of the total funds raised by his campaign." Clever, isn't he?

Perhaps most maddening of all, there are two GOP candidates, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, who are uncompromising critics of "A class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society." Have the Heritage Foundation and Ryan done their best to elevate those men, introduce them to a wider swath of the GOP electorate, raise money for their campaigns, and find more candidates who think like them?

Nope.

Of course, Ryan doesn't bear substantial responsibility for the Republican presidential field. But that doesn't rescue him from the inconvenient fact that he supported TARP too! As Daniel Larison puts it, "the TARP that Ryan supported is a classic example of 'a system based on political influence' that rewards failed companies and successful companies without regard to merit or outcome. Fortunately, Ryan is against all that now! Look, he has said so. He doesn't like the 'class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society.' He just votes for the latter's bailouts and defends their interests, and occasionally writes lengthy articles in which he conflates those interests with a defense of the 'free enterprise ethic.'" That's pretty much it.

Say for the sake of argument that cutting tax rates on corporations and top earners is a good way to spur the economy. I presume Ryan genuinely believes that; and his voting record, dating back to 1999, affirms that he is a consistent advocate of cutting taxes. But what else has he done? Has he generally shown that going after "connected crony capitalists" is a priority for him? Has he ever fought a "corporate chieftain" on behalf of a "small businesswoman"?

Let's look at all the legislation he has sponsored or co-sponsored (bills that came up in multiple sessions are mentioned only the first time -- the vast majority of this legislation never passed). Obviously this isn't a complete portrait of his time in public service, but it gives some sense of his actual priorities as a legislator, as opposed to the priorities he signals in his recent rhetoric.

(Details information on all bills are here.)

The 106th Congress (1999 - 2000)

  • To rename a post office for Les Aspen.
  • To pass a Social Security bill that "protects guaranteed lifetime benefits, including cost-of-living adjustments that fully index for inflation, for current and future retirees; and does not increase taxes."
  • To waive certain nurse training requirements in Medicare facilities.
  • To acknowledge the dedication of firefighters.
  • To make it harder procedurally to run budget deficits.
  • To specify where military members should be counted in the census.
  • To permit future budget surpluses to be used for tax cuts.
  •  "To promote international monetary stability and to share seigniorage with officially dollarized countries," whatever that means.

The 107th Congress (2001 to 2002)
 

  • To reduce the capital gains rate.
  • To amend the Clean Air Act with respect to gasoline.
  • To implement truth-in-numbers reforms in the federal budgeting process.
  • To repeal the sunset provision of the 2001 tax cuts.

The 108th Congress (2003 - 2004)

  •  To revise the excise tax on arrows.
  • To change the taxation of archery equipment.
  •  To tweak the tax code so that certain kinds of mobile machinery won't count as highway vehicles.
  •  To make permanent a tax cut on dividends and capital gains.
  •  To establish enterprise zones in poor areas wherein businesses would get special tax treatment.
  •  To establish a Social Security system with private accounts.
  •  To change tax law, benefiting folks who reinvest capital gains.
  •  To end the double taxation of dividends.
  •  To permit colleges to keep their tax exempt status when they made housing grants.
  •  To add a deduction on premiums for mortgage insurance.
  •  "To modify the exemption from the self-employment tax for certain termination payments received by former insurance sales agents."

The 109th Congress (2005 - 2006)

  •  To add a qualified line item veto to spending bills.
  • To change the tax code "to allow a bona fide association to maintain an additional reserve fund for medical benefits plans."
  • To expand health savings accounts.
  • To temporarily reduce the duty on bath and cleaning appliances.
  • "To improve the exchange of health information by encouraging the creation, use, and maintenance of lifetime electronic health records."
  • To change how child support is paid to needy families under the Social Security Act.
  • To permit more veterans to enjoy government subsidies as they take out mortgages.
  • "To suspend temporarily the duty on unidirectional (cardioid) electret condenser microphone modules for use in motor vehicles."
  • To suspend the duty on some electronic air fresheners.
  • To suspend the duty "on certain machines for use in the assembly of motorcycle wheels."

The 110th Congress (2007 - 2008)

  •  To require the Federal Reserve "to focus on price stability in establishing monetary policy to ensure the stable, long-term purchasing power of the currency; to repeal the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978."
  • "To suspend the highway fuels taxes, to provide for a Joint Committee on Earmark Reform, and to prohibit earmarking for the remainder of the 110th Congress."
  •  "To require wealthy beneficiaries to pay a greater share of their premiums under the Medicare prescription drug program."
  • The 2008 budget.
  • Establishes a health care commission "to conduct research, demonstration projects, evaluations, training, guideline development..."
  • To provide for the reform of health care
  • "To repeal the alternative minimum tax on individuals and replace it with an alternative tax."
  • "To allow individuals a refundable credit against income tax for the purchase of private health insurance..."
  • "To improve the quality and efficiency of health care, to provide the public with information on provider and supplier performance, and to enhance the education and awareness of consumers for evaluating health care services."
  • "To provide for the expedited consideration of certain proposed rescissions of budget authority."

The 111th Congress (2009 - 2010)

  • "Honoring the life and expressing condolences of the House of Representatives on the passing of Paul M. Weyrich."
  • "To provide comprehensive solutions for the health care system of the United States"

The 112th Congress (2011)

  • The budget.
  • "Expressing support for the designation of August 22, 2011, as Rose Brucia Stranger Safety Awareness Day."
  • "Providing amounts for the expenses of the Committee on the Budget in the One Hundred Twelfth Congress."

Whew.

Tough as it is to generalize about all that, certain themes do emerge. As noted, Ryan is a man focused on cutting taxes. If you're a member of America's investor class, he is particularly attune to your issues -- looking through the legislation he has sponsored, it's no surprise that he voted for TARP. He's also focused on reforming Social Security and Medicare, and has sponsored various bills that appear to make small changes on behalf of industry (perhaps good ones).

But getting back to his speech, especially the line about how "that's the real class warfare that threatens us: A class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society" -- does Ryan, based on his time in Congress, strike you as someone who has seriously tried to address those problems? For that matter, do Romney, Cain or Perry seem like guys who've focused on fixing them?

Does the GOP, the party of Tom Delay and The K Street project, strike you as good on these issues? Has the Tea Party, which rebelled against that establishment, been any better in choosing its champions? In Rand Paul, the answer is yes, but its presidential favorites aren't by and large aren't reformers. As someone disgusted by the Obama Administration's civil liberties violations, against its approach to health care, and critical of its auto bailout, coziness with Wall Street, payoff of health care industry interests, green jobs nonsense, and mythical shovel ready projects, I wish there were an opposition party credibly making the part of the Ryan critique I excerpted. But so far the GOP isn't credible on anything other than a commitment to tax cuts, more often than not for the most politically connected parts of the investor class. That means that even Ryan's deficit hawk appeal is mostly offset by the dearth of results, lack of proposals that could actually pass, and refusal to put solvency ahead of tax cut orthodoxy.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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