The Washington Post’s hatchet job on Paul Ryan

The Washington Post’s hatchet job on Paul Ryan

Today’s Washington Post contains an election-season hatchet job on Paul Ryan by reporter Lori Montgomery, “Amid debt crisis, Paul Ryan sat on the sidelines.” I would expect a story like this on the Newsweek or Huffington Post sites, but the Post purports to be nonpartisan and balanced.

Ms. Montgomery’s story offers two premises:

  1. Mr. Ryan “sat on the sidelines” rather than act, and in doing so he failed to behave as a responsible legislator;
  2. He would rather espouse conservative principles than engage in the messy business of bipartisan compromise.

Here is Ms. Montgomery’s core assertion:

But knowledge is not action. Over the past two years, as others labored to bring Democrats and Republicans together to tackle the nation’s $16 trillion debt, Ryan sat on the sidelines, glumly predicting their efforts were doomed to fail because they strayed too far from his own low-tax, small-government vision.

Here is her evidence:

  • Ryan voted against the Bowles-Simpson recommendations;
  • Through much of 2011, he insisted publicly that a “grand bargain” on the budget was impossible; and
  • He “asked Boehner not to name him to the congressional ‘supercommittee’ that took a final stab at bipartisan compromise last fall.”
  • He voted against a measure to dial back unemployment benefits and extend a temporary payroll tax holiday.

Not mentioned

She writes that Mr. Ryan “did draft a blueprint for wiping out deficits by 2040,” but she fails to mention that he passed that plan through the House. She does not report that Mr. Ryan’s staff were providing behind-the-scenes technical assistance to Speaker Boehner during the Grand Bargain negotiation. She doesn’t report that Mr. Ryan loaned his budget committee staff director to Mr. Hensarling on the super committee. She doesn’t mention that Mr. Ryan’s prediction that the super committee would fail came true, or that the Obama White House was AWOL during the super committee negotiations. She doesn’t mention that he voted for the Budget Control At of 2011, for the tax rate extensions at the end of 2010, and for the FY 2012 Omnibus Appropriations Act, three major bipartisan fiscal laws that deeply split House Republicans.

Action

Did Chairman Ryan sit on the sidelines over the past two years? On April 15, 2011, the House passed the FY 2012 budget resolution. On March 29, 2012, the House passed the FY 2013 budget resolution. Both were written by Mr. Ryan, passed by him out of his Budget Committee, and he managed the floor debate for each.

It is true that Mr. Ryan never reached a bipartisan conference agreement on either of his two budget resolutions, but that’s because the Senate never did its work. Mr. Ryan’s Senate counterpart, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D), did not pass a Senate budget resolution for any of the last three years. It is unfair to criticize Mr. Ryan for failing to reach a bipartisan compromise when his Democratic counterpart didn’t even show up or do his job.

More importantly, Mr. Ryan acted. His job as Budget Committee Chairman is to pass a budget resolution, and he did his job both years. Ms. Montgomery criticizes Mr. Ryan for failing to cut bipartisan deals in ad hoc negotiating forums. Yet he was not a member of two of the three, and she fails to give him credit for doing his job by passing legislation. As Budget Committee Chairman Mr. Ryan produced more concrete legislative progress than the Bowles-Simpson Commission and the super committee combined.

Bipartisanship

Ms. Montgomery suggests that being conservative and being bipartisan are mutually exclusive. That is a false premise.

And he has earned wide praise for tackling Medicare, the nation’s biggest budget problem, despite the political risk.

But as Washington braces for another push after the election to solve the nation’s budget problems, independent budget analysts, Democrats and some Republicans say Ryan has done more to burnish his conservative credentials than to help bridge the yawning political divide that stands as the most profound barrier to action.

Ms. Montgomery fails to mention Mr. Ryan’s two bipartisan Medicare plans. He developed the first with former Clinton Budget Director Alice Rivlin during the Bowles-Simpson Commission and negotiated the second with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. Rivlin-Ryan (which can point to the bipartisan Breaux-Frist-Thomas as its intellectual forefather) and Ryan-Wyden are major bipartisan structural Medicare reforms.  Ryan-Wyden is the Medicare policy assumed in the budget resolution passed by the House this year, even though it moved a big step left from the all-Republican plan assumed last year.  Medicare is one of the biggest fiscal challenges America faces. Mr. Ryan is the only one who has made concrete legislative progress on a bipartisan Medicare plan since 2003.

Maybe Ms. Montgomery didn’t know about Rivlin-Ryan and Ryan-Wyden? Here is what she wrote on December 14, 2011 in a story titled “Paul Ryan to announce new approach to preserving Medicare”:

Working with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the Wisconsin Republican is developing a framework that would offer traditional, government-run Medicare as an option for future retirees along with a variety of private plans.

… The center formed its own debt-reduction committee, chaired by former senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin, who has also worked with Ryan on his premium support approach to Medicare.

It is easy to write that someone is not bipartisan when you ignore his bipartisan work. In this case the premise is incorrect and Ms. Montgomery knows it’s incorrect.

The Biden comparison and the Commission

Ms. Montgomery contrasts Mr. Ryan with VP Biden:

Democrats say he would make a very different sort of vice president than Joseph Biden, a natural glad-hander who has taken the lead for Obama in negotiations with Republicans over taxes and deficit reduction.

We don’t know who are the Democrats who make this comparison, but we do know that VP Biden’s Communications Director, Shailagh Murray, co-authored at least six stories with Ms. Montgomery when she worked at the Post.

Like many others, Ms. Montgomery’s thesis relies heavily on Mr. Ryan’s no vote in the Bowles-Simpson Commission. Never mind that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D) also voted no, or that President Obama quietly shelved the recommendations of this commission that he created to report to himself. Never mind that, unlike President Obama, Mr. Ryan proposed his own long-term solution after voting no, then passed it in the House.

The Ryan vote is a perfectly obvious tactical move once you understand the structure of the commission and how it interacts with fiscal negotiations.  Mr. Ryan (and Mr. Camp and Mr. Hensarling) were members of a commission that reported to President Obama.  Yet they, as the representatives of House Republicans, represent the opposite pole from President Obama in fiscal negotiations.

Had the House Republicans on the commission voted aye, President Obama could then have received the negotiated solution and proposed policies one big step to the left, while trying to claim that he was supporting the recommendations (as he now claims). Ryan/Camp/Hensarling (or their leaders) would then be forced to negotiate a compromise between Bowles-Simpson that they had already endorsed and a more liberal position later chosen unilaterally by President Obama. Agreeing to Bowles-Simpson would have been only the first of two rounds of concessions made by House Republicans, given that the President structured the commission so that he alone would get a second bite at the apple.

The Senate Republican appointees (Coburn, Crapo, and Gregg) voted aye in the commission, but they were able to do so in part because they knew the House Republicans were voting no. The Senate Republicans could vote to move the process along, while House Republicans saved their aye vote for a round two in which the President was at the table.

Since President Obama ignored the Bowles-Simpson recommendations, that second round instead started from scratch in the Grand Bargain negotiations between the President and Speaker Boehner, who represent and lead the two poles of the negotiation.  Ms. Montgomery contrasts Mr. Ryan’s position in the commission with Speaker Boehner’s in the Grand Bargain negotiation, but Speaker Boehner was dealing directly with the President rather than as the first step in a potential two-step process.  Mr. Boehner could go farther than could Ryan/Camp/Hensarling because he knew that he wouldn’t get double-dipped.  Even so, President Obama tried to double-dip the Speaker when he used the Gang of Six proposal to demand $400 B more in tax increases and that the agreed-upon ceiling for revenues instead be a floor.

Senator Conrad and the Gang of Six

Ms. Montgomery includes this quote from Senator Conrad:

“His approach — my way or the highway — is precisely what’s wrong with this town. It’s the triumph of ideology,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who served with Ryan on the independent fiscal commission chaired by Democrat Erskine B. Bowles and former Republican senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. “The hard reality is, given the fact that we have divided government, both sides have to compromise in order to achieve a result. And Paul has refused to do that.”

Let’s compare and contrast:

  • During the Commission, Mr. Ryan worked with Dr. Rivlin to develop a bipartisan compromise Medicare plan. He voted no on the non-binding Bowles-Simpson recommendations, then introduced his own plan (a step to the right of B-S) in the House and passed it. The following year he renegotiated Rivlin-Ryan, compromised with Senator Wyden and produced Ryan-Wyden, included it in the House budget plan, and passed it.
  • Senator Conrad voted aye on the non-binding Bowles-Simpson recommendations. He then introduced a different plan (a step to the left of B-S) as leader of the Senate’s Gang of Six. He could have used his Gang of Six plan as the basis for a bipartisan budget resolution but, at Leader Reid’s direction, chose instead to do nothing. He marked up no budget resolution. Instead, he and the Gang rolled out their plan at exactly the wrong moment. President Obama said nice things about it and upped his tax increase demand of Speaker Boehner, leading to the collapse of the Grand Bargain negotiations.
  • President Obama created the commission, waited for its report, and then ignored it. He waited until Mr. Ryan proposed a budget, then attacked both the budget and Mr. Ryan in a speech at George Washington University.

Senator Conrad says the problem with Washington is the triumph of ideology. I think the problem is that certainly elected officials, including Chairman Conrad and President Obama, did not do their job.

The GW Speech

Ms. Montgomery takes a speech in which President Obama attacked Mr. Ryan and portrays the event as reflecting poorly on Mr. Ryan (emphasis is mine):

Ryan, too, blames the president. “Obama didn’t want success,” he said in November. He said that became apparent seven months earlier when Obama responded to the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission by rolling out his own deficit-reduction plan. Unaware that White House aides had invited Ryan to hear Obama’s speech at George Washington University — and that Ryan was sitting in the front row — the president blasted Ryan’s budget and renewed his call for higher taxes on the wealthy.

“It became clear to me when Obama invited us to GW . . . that he wasn’t going to triangulate and embrace Bowles-Simpson. He decided to double down on dema­goguery and ideology, and he has stuck to that ever since,” Ryan said.

According to Ms. Montgomery, the President was simply the victim of poor staff work. Mr. Ryan is portrayed as the aggressor. Yet in Bob Woodward’s book we read:

“We’re not waiting,” the president said in exasperation. He wanted to rip into Ryan’s plan.

… “I want to say this idea that we can’t get our deficit down without brutalizing Medicaid, it’s a dark view of America,” he said. He wanted that idea in the speech.

Obama was getting fired up as he worked through what to say and how to say it.

I believe there was a staff foul-up in inviting Mr. Ryan to the speech, but the President’s partisan attack was neither unintentional nor staff-driven. It was a planned attack devised by President Obama that ripped into Mr. Ryan’s plan and poisoned the well. Yet somehow Ms. Montgomery portrays the President as the victim of Mr. Ryan’s “blame.”

Timing

For decades the Washington Post was the paper of record for DC.  Over the past few years POLITICO has supplanted the Post in that role. When the Post’s staff publishes an obviously partisan hit piece with such weak intellectual support less than six weeks before Election Day, they destroy any credibility they have for objectivity or nonpartisan reporting.  That’s a shame.

(photo credit: Chealion)

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