Paul Ryan is not officially running for president, but he's sure acting like a presidential candidate. He's hoping he can frame himself as a unifying figure in the Republican race for the nomination, a non-fringe Republican who isn't an unpredictable demagogue like Donald Trump, an ideological extremist like Ted Cruz, or a repeated failure as a candidate like John Kasich.
"The youthful, widely-respected House Speaker combines Ted Cruz’s intellectual conservatism with John Kasich’s moderate congressional track record, a touch of a reformist impulse, plus the added bonus of not being Donald Trump," Vanity Fair's Tina Nguyen summarizes.
This idea of Ryan as a serious adult with a "moderate congressional track record" is a tempting one, but let's not fool ourselves. Ryan talks a good game about caring about poverty and rejecting the "makers versus takers" frame of many conservatives. But in his time as a national figure, he's been a consistent advocate of aggressive cuts to the social safety net and to Social Security and Medicare, and for tax reforms at least as regressive as those envisioned by Cruz and Trump.
Paul Ryan is many things. But he is no moderate.
Paul Ryan is coming for your Social Security and Medicare
Ryan first came to public prominence in 2005, as one of the most vocal proponents of privatizing Social Security in the House GOP. His specific plan, the Social Security Personal Savings Guarantee and Prosperity Act, was the most radical floated during that period. It would have allowed workers to redirect more than half of their 12.4 percent payroll tax contribution to Social Security into a private account, with poorer workers being able to redirect more.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that the plan would increase the debt by 93.7 percent of GDP — a more than doubling — by 2050. The problem is that by radically reducing payroll tax revenue, the plan would require a huge, ongoing infusion of revenue from income taxes and other sources. Specifically, it'd require an ongoing tax increase of 1.5 percent of GDP, or about $280 billion a year. The revenue shortfall the plan would create would more than double the Social Security shortfall at the time, thereby worsening the very problem the proposal was intended to solve.
Whatever Ryan's Social Security plan was, it wasn't moderate. In fact, the Bush administration rejected it in a leaked memo. While Bush staffer Peter Wehner did not name Ryan, he was clearly talking about the bill, calling it "irresponsible."
Ryan doesn't talk about his Social Security proposals much anymore, but they made their way into his first few budget plans. His initial "Roadmap for America's Future" in 2008 included a plan to allow 5.1 percent of the 12.4 percent in Social Security payroll taxes to go to private accounts. The plan would've also increased the retirement age and adopted "progressive price indexing," a scheme for cutting benefits by having middle-class and upper-income workers' benefits rise with inflation rather than with wage growth. The private accounts idea was retained in his 2010 proposal but abandoned in 2011.
Ryan's Medicare reform proposals are better-known. The 2008 and 2010 budget proposals fully privatized the program, replacing it for workers under 55 with a "Medicare payment" to be used to purchase private insurance. This is a major cut, as the value of the voucher would be less than expected spending on Medicare per beneficiary; what's more, Medicare pays doctors less than private health insurers, so even a voucher of equal value would effectively buy less care for seniors.
Like the Social Security plan, the Medicare proposal has moderated with time. After collaborating on a compromise version with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Ryan's later budgets let seniors choose traditional Medicare if they preferred that to buying private insurance.
Taken all together, is this plan more "moderate" than those of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? Not at all. Trump has been vocal in arguing against any cuts to Social Security or Medicare, placing him well to the left of Ryan, one of Washington's biggest supporters of Social Security and Medicare cuts, on the issue. Cruz supports personal accounts, progressive price indexing, and gradually increasing the retirement age, as well as Ryan-esque privatization of Medicare, putting him basically in line with Ryan on entitlement issues.
Ryan wants to dramatically cut programs for the poor
Ryan's entitlement cuts aren't where his budgets get most of their money, though. Looking at his last proposal, put out in 2014, fully 69 percent of cuts ($3.3 trillion out of $4.8 trillion) are to programs for low-income people like Medicaid, Pell Grants, SNAP/food stamps, and the like.
Specifically, the budget called for, over 10 years:
- $732 billion in cuts to Medicaid (a cut of more than a quarter), plus still more cuts to the program by eliminating the Affordable Care Act. He'd also block-grant the program, paving the way for future cuts by enabling states to divert the money for other uses. For example, about half of federal money on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, a.k.a. welfare) currently goes to non-welfare programs.
- $137 billion in cuts to SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps. That's a nearly 20 percent cut. Ryan's budget would've block-granted the program as well, just like Medicaid.
- $89 to 125 billion in cuts to Pell Grants, which he'd freeze in value for 10 years, even as tuition continues to increase.
- $160 billion or more in cuts to low-income programs in the discretionary budget, like Head Start or nutrition for women, infants, and childredn (WIC).
- $150 billion or more in cuts to unspecified mandatory programs helping poor people, like the earned income tax credit, school lunches, and Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled.
These are truly massive cuts that would likely throw millions of Americans into poverty. And they're actually somewhat milder than his early proposals, which envisioned eliminating Medicaid almost entirely and replacing it with a refundable tax credit.
Ryan has since tried to rebrand himself as a compassionate conservative who cares about poverty, unveiling a much-touted poverty plan in 2014 and holding a widely publicized "poverty forum" for the Republican presidential contenders this year.
But this has changed precious little of the substance of his views on poverty. He has a proposal to expand the earned income tax credit for childless workers and non-custodial parents, but he would pay for it by cutting other safety net programs, including denying millions of children of undocumented immigrants access to the child tax credit (even though many of those children are US citizens).
While his plan is basically identical to President Obama's EITC expansion proposal, Ryan has not agreed to a compromise yet, even though the 2015 tax deal provided a perfect opportunity to do so. While that deal finally made the EITC expansions in the 2009 stimulus package permanent, that was a change that Ryan resisted for years.
Outside of the EITC, Ryan's poverty plan is basically the same as his early budgets. He wants to block-grant Medicaid and SNAP. He wants to force poor families to develop a "contract" with the government or a nonprofit to get themselves out of poverty, a deeply condescending and paternalistic approach that fails to address both weak labor markets for the poor and the fact that the social services agencies that'd be administering these kinds of contracts would see a lot less funding with the discretionary cuts Ryan favors.
Is this agenda more moderate than Trump or Cruz? Not really. Trump basically shares Ryan's agenda for the poor, calling for block-granting Medicaid and attacking the food stamps program. Same with Cruz. If anything, the two have been much less detailed than Ryan in explaining how they plan to increase poverty in America.
Ryan's tax cuts are about as massive as Trump's
Ryan has always included massive tax cut proposals in his budgets. Traditionally, the cornerstone of the plans is the replacement of the current bracket structure with just two rates: 10 percent up to $50,000 ($100,000 for couples), and 25 percent above that point.
His initial plan would've replaced the corporate income tax with an 8.5 percent value-added tax, subjected all health insurance to income and payroll taxation, and ended all taxation of investment income. It would've let taxpayers choose between the current individual tax system and a new one with 10 and 25 percent rates and no itemized deductions or credits. The Tax Policy Center estimated that it would increase taxes for people making $20,000 to $200,000 but give millionaires an average tax cut of more than $500,000. It would've led to a huge reduction in revenue, leading to a $4 trillion shortfall over 10 years.
Ryan's plan hasn't gotten much better in later iterations. He abandoned the choice-of-plans aspect and the VAT idea. He went silent on abandoning taxation of all investment income. Instead, he'd cut the corporate income tax rate to 25 percent and exclude foreign profits, retain the 10 and 25 percent brackets, and pay for it all by cutting deductions.
He did not specify how he'd cut deductions, and it's basically impossible to see how that could work. The Tax Policy Center found that the new rates, corporate tax reform, abolition of estate tax/Obamacare taxes/alternative minimum tax, etc. would cost $5.7 trillion over 10 years. When TPC looked at Mitt Romney's much milder plan in 2012, with a top rate of 28 percent and a number of in-between brackets, they concluded that there was no way to pay for it by limiting tax deductions that wouldn't wind up costing the middle class or poor money. With much more money on the line, Ryan has an even greater challenge.
His tax proposals bear a strong resemblance to those of Donald Trump. Trump also wants tax brackets of 10 and 25 percent, plus an additional one of 20. Both would increase the standard deduction and cut the corporate rate. Trump's corporate cut is bigger — down to a rate of 15 percent, not 25 as under Ryan's plan — but unlike Ryan he's never proposed eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends. Ted Cruz has only a 10 percent flat tax on income, but subjects capital gains to it, and borrows Ryan's idea of turning the corporate tax into a VAT.
So despite Ryan's repeated attempts to rebrand himself as a moderate, pragmatic leader, his record shows him to be anything but. He's a doctrinaire, down-the-line supply-sider who wants massive cuts to safety net and social insurance programs and equally massive tax cuts for the wealthy. There is very little daylight between him, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz on these issues, and in some cases he's actually to the right of Trump. Yes, he's more supportive of immigration reform, and yes, he avoids engaging in the kind of virulent Islamophobia and racism that Trump does. But when it comes to policy nuts and bolts, they're not far apart.