The Real Ryan Record: 2 Minor Bills, Lots of High-Profile Talk, Gridlock

Ryan's legislative record shows him renaming post offices, honoring Ronald Reagan and Wisconsin, approving commemorative coins, and increasing the deficit.

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A lot of the coverage of Republican vice presidential pick Paul Ryan talks about how handsome he is. How thoughtful. How serious and substantive and what a genuinely nice guy.

After looking at his record, I'm going to have to agree with Jonathan Chait, who writes that Ryan's "public persona is a giant scam" that marks him as a "skillful pol" -- and also someone who ought not to be underestimated. But there's a big difference between manners and character, between ideologically rigid political posturing and a substantive commitment to the difficult work of creating positive change within a pluralistic and diverse democratic society. If people can no longer tell the one from the other it's because we now live in an age, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has so memorably noted, where "where counter-intuitive bullshitting is valorized, where the pose of argument is more important than the actual pursuit of truth, where clever answers take precedence over profound questions."

Mitt Romney said Sunday that Ryan's "career ambition was not to go to Washington." But Ryan did go to Washington, D.C., arriving as an intern in 1991 and spending the entire rest of his career here after graduating from college. As National Journal's Rebecca Kaplan and Sarah Huisenga put it:

Ryan's career path doesn't quite gel with the image Romney projected in his speech. As a college student at Miami University in Ohio, he began serving as a staffer for Republican Sen. Bob Kasten. After graduating, he was hired as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp, then a congressman from New York. Ryan, who cited Kemp as a mentor at an event in Manassas, Va., on Saturday, went on to work for Kemp's think tank, Empower America, and as a speechwriter on his vice presidential campaign in 1996. He also was a legislative director for then-Sen. Sam Brownback, now governor of Kansas.

Ryan ran for and was elected to Congress in 1998, and has been serving as a member from his Wisconsin district since 1999.

As such, Ryan is both a product of and poster boy for the political city. And it is symptom of the corruption and divisiveness of contemporary Washington that a man who has not passed a single piece of substantive legislation, ever, can be hailed as a substantive and deep thinker and the voice of budgetary sanity while racking up an actual record consisting overwhelmingly of renaming post offices, honoring Ronald Reagan and Wisconsin, providing for the issuance of commemorative coins, and increasing the deficit through massive tax cuts. (The post office thing, of course, is not specific to Ryan -- a quarter of bills passed in 2011 involved postal branches, and the Congress passed fewer pieces of law last year than at any point since a tally began to be kept in 1947, according to Bloomberg News. And we all know the relationship between the Bush tax cuts, which President Obama and Democrats have extended, and the deficit: they added $1.7 trillion to the tab between 2001 and 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

My theory of politics is that, from the perspective of the voter, nothing that has not been passed into law and enacted on the ground has actually taken place, no matter how much hot air it has garnered inside the Beltway. This is why politicians, like President Obama, who love to tout as yet-unimplemented programs run into trouble -- because voters are very fact-oriented in their assessments. Until something touches their lives, it hasn't happened. There is only what is, and what is not -- the rest is just noise that most people tune out, or dismiss as empty promises.

Sure, Ryan signed on to substantive tax reforms as a co-sponsor of bills that passed during Bush's first term, as well as being a co-sponsor of the second round of Bush tax cuts. But since then his proposals and those he's backed as a co-sponsor have gotten further away from the congressional mainstream, making him a force for gridlock and the sort of legislative failure that has come to characterize the 112th Congress.

Ryan joins the GOP ticket as a creature of this Congress, the one that has a 9 percent approval rating -- the lowest level of support ever recorded. He's been a rising star among the people normal Americans hate, and the fresh-faced embodiment of what Washington insiders value today.

Whatever his reputation in Georgetown, Ryan's more-than-13-year record proves he is no legislative great. No one in America has yet lived under Ryan's radical proposals for rewriting the social contract in America, because in seven different Congresses, in Houses run by Democrats and by Republicans, and under three different presidents, not one of his big ideas has gathered enough support to become law.

Ryan's first successful piece of legislation was a bill "To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1818 Milton Avenue in Janesville, Wisconsin, as the 'Les Aspin Post Office Building.'" It became a law in 2000.

Since then, he has been the sponsor of only one other bill that has become a public law of the United States, according to records kept by the Library of Congress -- a measure introduced in 2004 "To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to modify the taxation of arrow components." (That one's a bit of a self-interested move on his part, as Ryan is enjoys bow hunting.)

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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