As the Republican party continues its search for the next Speaker of the House following Paul Ryan’s April 11 announcement that he intends to retire from Congress at the end of this year, it becomes important to examine the legislative legacy he will leave behind. Ryan’s career began 19 years ago when he was elected as the representative of Wisconsin’s first congressional district. For the last three years, he has served as Speaker of the House.
His retirement takes place during a time of turmoil for the Republican party. With narcissistic, rhetoric-driven Donald Trump currently holding the banner for the GOP, Ryan has become the prime example of a common-sense, policy-driven Republican who has been praised for having “policy chops and listening skills” and representing “a totem of ‘the establishment.’”
Ryan’s achievements, however, paint an image of a man equally as callous and extreme as our current president, suggesting there is no difference between Trump’s GOP and Ryan’s. Instead, they are one in the same, each using distinctive methods to advance and represent equally harmful policies aimed at punishing the poor and rewarding the wealthy.
Ryan, who famously has been dreaming of reforming social welfare programs, was recently praised by many Republican pundits and thinkers, including Mary Kissel, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board, who described Ryan’s retirement as an “intellectual” loss for the Republican party.
Despite the general praise Ryan receives from most centrist Republicans, when examining his legacy, many columnists and pundits have painted the level-headed Ryan as a victim, a political bystander to Trump’s barrage of harsh, insensitive comments.
“Ryan had to bite his tongue and pretend that he didn’t hear the president praising neo-Nazis, defending Confederate monuments, vilifying mainly African American National Football League players, referring to African countries, Haiti and El Salvador as ‘shitholes,’ demonizing immigrants as rapists and murderers, endorsing an accused child molester for the Senate and committing a thousand other infractions against common decency,” writes Max Boot, a columnist for The Washington Post.
The policy achievements and advancements of the past year, however, paint a far different picture, revealing a man who, instead of rolling over to Trump, has capitalized on a Republican presidency to pass and advance several of his long-term policy goals.
The chief policy proposals Ryan made during his tenure under Trump related to healthcare and tax reform. He began with various attempted repeals of Obamacare. Although each proposed repeal and replace bill ultimately failed, each draft seemed to, in its own way, exemplify “Ryanism.”
The most mentioned, and debated, feature of the proposed versions of the bill was the drastic cuts each version made to Medicaid, which would have impacted millions of individuals currently enrolled in Medicaid under the Obamacare expansion.
Trump claimed repeatedly during the campaign that he would not cut Medicaid. Ryan, however, continues to be a staunch believer in scaling back welfare benefits. Thus, the large cuts to Medicaid that appeared in each draft of the various proposed healthcare overhaul demonstrate Ryan’s clear influence on Washington during the year-and-a-half of Trump’s administration.
In fact, even after the failure of various drafts of so-called “Trumpcare,” the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, under the leadership of Trump staffers, drafted guidelines for states interested in instituting work requirements for Medicaid recipients. Under this new policy, the federal government would provide a block grant to states that pass these requirements. However, the federal guidelines are so stringent and poorly drafted that, in Kentucky, which recently passed these work requirements into law, one in four working people may lose coverage. If this was not enough, Trump’s proposed 2019 budget promised to cut Medicaid by $1.3 trillion as well as Medicare by $500 billion.
Ryan’s central achievement, however, lies, not in the arena of healthcare, but in the arena of tax reform. In December, the Republicans passed a bill that would slash the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent. Although in the short run this bill is expected to lead to a tax cut for all, by 2027 the Joint Committee on Taxation predicts that individuals earning less than $75,000 would experience a tax hike; in effect, Ryan’s vision of lower taxes on the rich regardless of the expense on the poor has come to fruition.
If this is not enough evidence that Trump has taken after Ryan as opposed to the alternative, there is also the fact that Ryan was not actively working towards legislation to restrict immigration and trade, despite the fact that these are two of Trump’s most frequently mentioned goals.
As Ryan has aimlessly pursued his goals to re-structure both the healthcare and tax system, he has left a path of destruction in his wake. The American Health Care Act (AHCA), which went through several drafts, had one clear feature: a complete disregard for the lives of the impoverished and struggling. Its passage would have meant that over 20 million fewer individuals would be insured by 2026. The House version of the bill, the American Health Care Act spearheaded by Ryan, would have allowed insurance companies to increase rates on those with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer, diabetes and even, in some cases, sexual assault rape. Furthermore, it would have placed a one year block on federal reimbursements to Planned Parenthood, causing approximately 15 percent of women who already have reduced access to care to lose access to family planning entirely.
In the arena of taxes, the harm is somewhat more difficult to estimate. However, considering it is certain that, overtime, those in lower income brackets will pay more while corporations pay less, it can only be assumed that the harm will be similar to the harm that would have been done under the AHCA. The wealthy will experience a somewhat easier day-to-day existence while those who are already living paycheck-to-paycheck or rely on the government to feed themselves and their children will likely be placed at an even more acute disadvantage.
So, Trump may be more outspoken, but he is not more cruel. Trump may be less able to place policy ideas on paper, but he envisions the same type of America as Ryan. Trump may be more focused on race and religion while Ryan is more caught up in success and wealth, but they both see a nation that rewards some and punishes others, an America where those meeting certain thresholds of success or fitting certain categories of race are given an easier ride while others are punished every step along the way.
Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.