By Patrick OConnor - 03/23/05 12:00 AM EST
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is young and telegenic, a conservative rising star whose plan to reform Social Security has been embraced by leaders in the House.
Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) is a soft-spoken grandfather whose plan to create personal retirement accounts could be the most appealing to Democrats because it does not divert any payroll taxes from the current Social Security system.
Early on in the 109th Congress, the two Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee have been among the most vocal members for overhauling Social Security. And while both men dismiss any notion that their political stake in the debate outweighs their personal commitment to the issue, neither lawmaker has rejected the increased exposure.
Whatever becomes of Social Security reform and the Republican drive to create personal retirement accounts, the debate will provide a national stage for lawmakers.
“Reputations will be made and broken on a big issue like this,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “You can try to ride a shooting star … or be burned to a crisp in the process.”
Shaw and Ryan epitomize that potential.
“They’re very different,” Sabato said. “Clay Shaw is a senior congressman with some close calls,” he said, referring to some of the close election victories that Shaw has eked out in his slightly Democratic district. “He’s toward the end of his career.”
On the other hand, Sabato said that Ryan “is a good example of how a relatively junior lawmaker can latch on to a major issue and get great exposure.”
Ryan and Shaw have already received hearty national attention on this issue. Ryan has made nine national television and radio appearances to discuss Social Security since Feb. 21, according to his office, and Shaw has been getting an equal share of ink and TV time, including a David Broder column in last week’s Washington Post that focused on the congressman and his plan.
At 35, Ryan has much of his political career ahead of him, while Shaw, on the verge of his 66th birthday, has already fought most of his political fights — which included a key role in the welfare-reform bill that then-President Bill Clinton signed into law. His two biggest fights, though, might still be ahead of him.
The first regards Social Security. Shaw’s reform bill is the only one to create personal retirement accounts as an “add-on” to the current Social Security benefit system, and he has been shopping it to unnamed Democrats in both chambers with the hope that it will be a credible bipartisan solution.
“You’re not going to pass this with Republican votes alone,” Shaw said.
The second fight could be his challenge for the Ways and Means gavel after Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) steps down as chairman at the end of this Congress.
Conventional wisdom on K Street has already given the chairmanship to Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who replaced Shaw as chairman of the Social Security subcommittee at the beginning of this year. Despite that chatter, Shaw, who is the most senior member of the committee behind Thomas, has said he is interested in mounting a challenge.
However, Shaw’s race for reelection might interfere with his race for chairman because the 13th-term congressman is again expected to face a credible Democratic challenge. That bid would force Shaw to focus his fundraising on his own campaign rather than those of his Republican colleagues.
For example, during the last cycle, when Shaw faced stiff Democratic competition until his opponent surprisingly dropped out at the beginning of September, Shaw’s political action committee, Sunshine PAC, contributed $21,000 to five House candidates, three of which lost. During the same cycle, McCrery’s PAC, the Committee for the Preservation of Capitalism, contributed $469,500 to 84 House candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Ryan’s political agenda is a little less clear. He has no immediate challenger, defeating his last opponent by 32 percentage points last November. Regardless, Republican leaders see Ryan playing a leading role in the Party for years to come. In September, Ryan was one of the few lawmakers selected to address the National Republican Convention in New York.
Only in his fourth term, Ryan lingers at the center of the Social Security reform debate.
Midway through a recent interview in his Longworth office, an assistant interrupted to tell the congressman that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was on the phone.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have recently made at least three unsolicited references to Ryan’s bill, which would divert half of the current payroll tax to create individual savings accounts, the largest such diversion proposed.
Earlier this year, Hastert praised Ryan’s measure on national television. The bill has also attracted the support of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
“I’m more concerned about securing Social Security reform that I am with passing my bill,” Ryan said. “I don’t have any pride in authorship.”
Like Shaw, Ryan said Thomas would play a crucial role in drafting whatever legislation eventually emerges from the Ways and Means Committee.
Ryan’s bill, like Shaw’s, also would guarantee current benefits. He would do that by reducing overall government spending, creating protections on the current trust fund and diverting a sliver of the expected increase in corporate tax revenue over the coming years toward the balance of promised benefits, with the potential for government borrowing if any of those three other levers falls short.
While the younger Ryan demurred about his time in the spotlight, the elder Shaw welcomed the attention and conceded that it would be a powerful tool as his career unfolds.
“Exposure that is not damaging to a politician is always good,” Shaw said. “We all have our futures in mind.”