Congress Digs In for a Turf War Over Poverty

Paul Ryan is pushing lawmakers to tackle an issue Republicans have long ignored, but all Democrats see are cuts—and a familiar foil.

Mark Wilson / Getty

Democrats have always thought of Paul Ryan as a friendly foil.

Long before he became speaker of the House, Ryan was the face of conservative policy in Congress, and he had earned the respect of President Obama and leading Democrats on Capitol Hill for, if nothing else, putting forward serious ideas and having the political courage to stand by them.

Respect, yes. But not fear.

Ryan may have been young, smart, and telegenic, yet Democrats never felt he posed a real threat for the simple reason that his policies were toxic to a majority of American voters. Partially privatizing Medicare. Block-granting Medicaid. More tax cuts for the wealthy. Steep reductions in discretionary spending. Every year, Ryan would release his annual budget proposal with fanfare, and every year Democrats relished the opportunity to eviscerate it in television ads (which only worked to a limited degree).

Now as speaker, however, Ryan is mounting a new policy push on an issue Democrats have owned for decades: poverty. The Wisconsin Republican has been developing his own anti-poverty agenda for years, believing that the maze of federal programs—and trillions in associated spending—that date back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society have, on the whole, failed to significantly reduce the ranks of the nation’s poor. As the Republican budget chief in 2014, he released a 200-page audit of federal anti-poverty programs. (Spoiler: It was not glowing.) And since his elevation to the top job last year, Ryan has made combating poverty and increasing upward mobility one of the six pillars of House Republican policy in 2016. He has even tried to focus the party’s presidential hopefuls on the issue, though as Michelle Cottle wrote last month, it didn’t really take.

So far, Democrats  don’t seem all that worried about Ryan encroaching on their policy turf. Officially, they are welcoming Republicans to a fight they’ve been waging for decades, but to call them skeptical would be an understatement. After Republican leaders launched a task force on poverty in February, Democratic leaders held a press conference to denounce the panel as partisan and to criticize Ryan for joining the fight against poverty while supporting deep cuts to the very programs that help the poor.

That’s the kind of response that might be expected when politicians try to debate policy in an election year. And truthfully, neither party has high expectations for what the task force—comprised of five chairmen of existing committees—will actually produce in the next several months. Ryan wants the panel to report back to House Republicans by June, but it’s unlikely the party will draft specific legislation this year, much less vote on it.

“Paul Ryan, I think, is very able at articulating vision,” said Representative Steny Hoyer, the minority whip and second-ranking House Democrat. “What he’s not so good at it is proposing policies that pass and will accomplish the vision.”

Still, Democrats appear uncertain about just how seriously they should take Ryan’s effort. Is it aimed at producing legislation that (at least some) members of both parties can support? Or is this a bid to slash federal spending, kick people off the welfare rolls, repackage conservative proposals, and call it an anti-poverty agenda?

“At best, this task force could at least expose where Republicans will go when it comes to the safety net,” Representative Xavier Becerra, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, told me. “At worst, this partisan task force could prove to be a front for a different motive: to dismantle the safety net.”

Ryan has framed the broader policy push as an attempt to fashion a Republican platform that the party’s presidential nominee can embrace this fall and enact once elected next year. But as Donald Trump draws closer to the nomination, the chances that Ryan will have a true conservative partner in the White House are growing ever more remote. While supportive on tax policy, Trump has campaigned against the kind of changes to entitlement programs on which Ryan has made his name.

For Democrats, one test of the task force’s credibility will be whether or not it calls for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to younger workers and childless adults, a policy that represents perhaps the core area of bipartisan agreement on fighting poverty. Ryan and some Republicans have backed an EITC expansion because the tax credit adheres to the conservative principle of encouraging and rewarding work. “Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit is something that I think most Republicans and Democrats can definitely come together around,” said Representative Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican who has participated in task force meetings. Yet other Republicans consider expanding the EITC costly and unnecessary, or they oppose expansion on the grounds that there are already fraud problems in the program. Nonetheless, Scott Winship, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has advised Republicans on poverty, predicts an EITC expansion would be a priority.

Republicans and Democrats have also generated some agreement on the need to improve workforce-training programs and bolster prisoner-reentry initiatives as ways to help people climb the income ladder. Yet the biggest focus for the GOP panel is likely to be one of the thorniest areas of federal anti-poverty policy: welfare programs. Specifically, Republicans want to extend the kind of work requirements that Congress enacted—and President Bill Clinton signed—for the cash-welfare payment system 20 years ago. “I think the ’96 legislation has been really successful,” Winship said, “and it will kind of be the starting point for discussions about how to set up work requirements in these other programs.”

Republicans have been targeting the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, with the goal of incentivizing work so that recipients aren’t faced with the possibility of losing federal aid if they take a job that pays less than their benefits. “Nobody has a real good solution yet for how to address this cliff,” said Representative Mike Conaway, a Republican who as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee has been leading a separate, bipartisan effort to review SNAP for more than a year. As Conaway sees it, Republicans have gotten into trouble by lumping together welfare recipients from two distinct groups—those who because of a physical or mental incapacity will always need help from the government and those are able to work but need temporary assistance in difficult times. Democrats focus on the truly needy, he said, while Republicans too often find themselves talking only about “our 27-year-old surfer from California that doesn’t really like to work, but he loves to surf, and he’s on food stamps.”

“A program that’s reaching 45 million Americans cannot be encapsulated in a 30-second sound bite that is fair to either one of the groups,” Conaway told me. The goal of the GOP’s efforts, he said, is to find a policy that can reform welfare programs for able-bodied adults without shredding the safety net for those who are legitimately and permanently dependent on government aid. In theory, that’s a goal Democrats would support, too. “The differences are relatively small rhetorically,” said Hoyer. Yet, he said, Republicans have rarely been able to develop policies that deliver on their rhetoric. Part of the problem has been divisions within the GOP itself; Hoyer noted that when the Agriculture Committee approved a bipartisan, $940 billion farm bill in 2013, it failed on the House floor after conservatives added an amendment that included a broad work requirement and an additional $20 billion in cuts to food stamps, causing Democrats to defect. “The Republicans have historically oversimplified and overclassified and painted with a very broad brush,” Hoyer said. “You’ve got to deal with that in a surgical way, not a blunt-instrument way.”

Adding to the challenge is that while most Democrats opposed welfare reform in the 1990s, the party has moved further to the left in recent years, and the issue has become a complicated one for Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee whose husband signed the law in 1996. “Even back then, it wasn’t really all that bipartisan,” Winship said, noting that President Clinton signed the bill only after vetoing it twice. “I think it is going to be tough for Republicans to get significant Democratic votes for the sort of legislation they’ll be shooting for.”

A more controversial priority for Republicans is to consolidate many of the federal anti-poverty programs and send them back to the states through a block grant. The idea is that states need more flexibility to experiment and that funding decisions should be made on a pay-for-performance model, based on how many people advance out of anti-poverty programs rather than simply by how many people they serve. “How can we do a better job rewarding them for their success?” Brooks asked. Yet these proposals face near total opposition from Democrats, who see them as veiled attempts to slash spending and reduce the size of the federal government. “If all these words they’re using are simply code for cutting, it’s hard to see how this effort they’re undertaking is going to be any different from other partisan efforts they’ve launched,” Becerra said.

And that highlights what may be the irreconcilable difference between Republicans and Democrats on poverty, as it is on many issues: money. Republicans point to the trillions of dollars spent to eradicate poverty and the stubbornly high number of people in need as an argument for why reform is necessary. Democrats, on the other hand, see the GOP’s budget-cutting obsession as a chief obstacle to lowering the poverty rate. Even as they pursue an anti-poverty agenda, Republicans are not promising to protect any domestic federal programs from cuts, and many conservatives are demanding steeper reductions. “All programs across the board, all discretionary programs are going to sustain some cuts,” Brooks said. “But I think that this agenda is a great opportunity to try to impress upon the appropriators and impress upon our members that these are our priority areas and how do we make sure that the budget reflects that.”

For Ryan and the Republican task force, that dynamic might be the trickiest to navigate. Can they convince voters they can reduce poverty and cut the budget at the same time? Ryan rarely shies away from a policy fight on political grounds. But as they prepare to campaign once again against a favorite conservative foil, Democrats are eager to see him try.