Paul Ryan and the Stimulus: A Match Designed to Make My Head Explode

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Conrad Schmidt / AP

Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, accompanied by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, left, speaks at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012.

My main obsession these days is President Obama’s misunderstood stimulus bill—why, yes, thanks for asking, The New New Deal did come out today—but I’m also fascinated by the partisan Republican budget-buster Paul Ryan and his absurd reputation as a brave deficit hawk. So I thought I’d check out Ryan’s positions on the stimulus. Let’s just say they won’t surprise those of us familiar with his work.

Ryan made his skepticism about stimulus clear in a Roll Call op-ed just a month after Obama’s election, complaining, as he always does whenever a Democrat wants to spend money, that it would add to deficits and debt. He also took aim at “the most recent example of stimulus failure,” the $168 billion stimulus package that President Bush had enacted earlier in the year, consisting mainly of tax rebates to American families. “Instead of spending the extra cash, as proponents had hoped, most recipients simply paid off bills or saved the money,” Ryan declared.

Funny, Ryan somehow forgot to mention that he was one of those proponents. He had voted for the Bush stimulus, along with the Bush tax cuts, the Bush wars, the Bush security spending binge, the Bush prescription drug benefit, the Bush highway bill that included the Bridge to Nowhere, and the Bush bank bailout. Fiscal conservatism!

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Ryan did oppose the Obama stimulus, as did every other House Republican. But as I describe in my book, there was an interesting behind-the-scenes debate going on within the GOP caucus about what Republicans should support instead, and it’s telling to see where Ryan ended up.

One side, call it the political side, was led by Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. He’s a staunch conservative, but his top priority was making sure the Republican vote on the Obama bill was unanimous. So he wanted to stage a vote on a GOP alternative that had plenty of highway projects and other spending that Republican moderates and concrete lovers could support, so they would have something to say yes to while saying no to Obama. The other side, call it the ideological side, was led by Conference Chair Mike Pence of Indiana, who argued that the whole point of fiscal conservatism was opposing government spending, that the Republicans shouldn’t be trying to out-New Deal the Democrats.

“You can’t say spending does nothing for economic growth and then on the other hand, let’s put it all in highways,” one conservative leadership aide recalled.

So the Republican leadership, as former Democratic congressman David Obey put it, decided to fall off both sides of the horse. The official $478 billion Republican stimulus alternative was an ideological bill, consisting entirely of tax cuts and unemployment benefits, with not a penny for infrastructure or other spending. But Republicans also crafted a second $715 billion substitute that was almost as expansive as the $787 billion bill Obama signed into law. It slashed spending on Obama priorities like energy efficiency, the smart grid, summer jobs programs, and aid to help cash-strapped states avoid massive layoffs of teachers and cops, but it actually increased spending on highways and the environmentally destructive water projects of the Army Corps of Engineers.

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Republicans never explained how $715 billion worth of tax cuts and spending could be good public policy while $787 billion worth of tax cuts and spending was freedom-crushing socialism. In the minority, they didn’t have to. And Paul Ryan? As usual, he fell off both sides of the horse. He voted for the ideological tax-cut bill that would have increased the deficit, and the political spending bill that would have increased the deficit. And then he railed about Obama and the Democrats increasing the deficit.

“They shocked the American people,” he later explained. “They certainly shocked me…Bam! Out of the gates, these people had a hard-core left agenda…They used the rhetoric of freedom and choice and opportunity to sell an inherently statist agenda.”

Yes, the rhetoric of choice and opportunity. Like the rhetoric a certain congressman from Wisconsin used on October 7, 2009, when he wrote Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to push a stimulus grant for a local group.

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“I have reviewed the Energy Center of Wisconsin’s grant narrative, and I believe that they would make effective use of the funds,” Ryan wrote. He noted that they would “develop an industry-driven training and placement agenda that intends to place 1,000 workers in green jobs.” Ryan also wrote several letters to the Energy Department, seeking stimulus for local groups that would help retrofit homes and businesses to “reduce their energy costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate the local economy by creating new jobs.”