Economy & Budget

Ryan goes all-in on Puerto Rico

Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is on the cusp of redefining the House Speakership, a position that he initially did not even want. The gavel associated with being two heartbeats from the presidency is traditionally bestowed upon a senior House member as the capstone of his career and he typically wields it with the primary aim of preserving his power. Ryan, however, has a long career left ahead of him and is already preparing to spend his full cache of political power to work himself out of the job as expeditiously as possible.

{mosads}Ryan initially has been a cautious Speaker. He has devolved power from the party’s leadership back to the chamber’s committee chairmen. He has eschewed forcing resolution where compromise has been elusive, even with Congress’s most fundamental duty of developing a budget. Fully cognizant of the intra-party stalemates that led to predecessor John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) demise at the hands of the Freedom Caucus, Ryan has taken pains to incorporate these often inflexible members into the policymaking process.

However, this is about to change.

Ryan, for the first time as Speaker, is wading into the middle of an issue that has driven a wedge though his conference: how to address the imminent Puerto Rican debt crisis. Unlike with last fall’s spending showdown, he cannot blame Boehner for leaving an unresolved issue on his plate; rather, Ryan has chosen to own the Puerto Rico crisis himself.

Some conservatives have sought to derail Ryan’s legislative response to the crisis by tarring it as a “bailout” — a toxic label on both sides of the aisle since the financial crisis. But Ryan has refused to relent. In fact, he is doubling down on passing a bill that he asserts will avert an otherwise inevitable genuine bailout. While many political pundits view the pending legislation as stalled, Ryan is willing to go all-in to pass a law enabling Puerto Rico to restructure its debt before a disorderly liquidation is triggered on July 1.

Even as he guards his flank against a career-damaging debt crisis on his watch, Ryan remains focused on what has long been his top policy priority: comprehensive tax reform. Seen by many inside the Beltway as the Holy Grail of policy accomplishments, it is also the thorniest of issues to tackle, as demonstrated by the lack of a major tax code rewrite in the past 30 years.

Although Ryan is no doubt an ardent conservative, he has also demonstrated the capacity for bipartisan deal-making. As Budget Committee chairman, he worked with his Democratic counterpart in the upper chamber, Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), to develop a fiscal compromise to staunch the exhausting cycle of imminent government shutdowns.

As Ways and Means Committee chairman, Ryan engaged in extensive negotiations over international tax reform with Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), who is to become Ryan’s Senate Democratic counterpart next January. While Ryan and Schumer were unable to seal a deal in their roles last year, they will both have more power to do so next year — and Ryan will be willing to invest the political capital he has been husbanding for so long to get it done.

Given the current level of government dysfunction, it is easy to remain skeptical that anything will change after the elections. However, here is the key difference: Ryan does not see protecting his position as Speaker as an impediment to getting tax reform done. On the contrary, he assuredly views accomplishing tax reform as his excuse to move on. He would rather use his current role as an eventual springboard to higher political aspirations than hanging on too long like his fellow cheesehead, former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre. And there would be no better feather in his cap when leaving than having successfully ushered tax reform through the legislative process.

Ryan, who lost his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all to heart attacks in their fifties, often emphasizes protecing quality time with his family. But by betting all of his political chips to get tax reform passed before the next midterm elections, Ryan will earn himself the ability to spend as much time as he wants with his family while he considers his next political move, be it the governor’s mansion in Madison or seeking to move directly to the White House.

Myrow is managing partner of Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington. He previously served in several government positions, including as a senior Treasury Department official under President George W. Bush from 2008 to 2009.

Tags Boehner Chuck Schumer Debt John Boehner Patty Murray Paul Ryan Puerto Rico Puerto Rico debt crisis tax code Tax reform
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