Ryan leaves legacy of tax cuts and deficits

When Paul Ryan was sworn in as Speaker in October 2015, the nation’s fiscal path offered some glimpses of hope for fiscal conservatives.

After years of high-deficit spending following the Great Recession, the federal budget deficit that year had fallen to $439 billion, its lowest level since 2007. 

Two-and-a-half years later, as Ryan prepares to leave Congress, the deficit is projected to hit $804 billion this year and to surpass $1 trillion by 2020.


It leaves a muddled legacy for Ryan, who garnered a reputation as an honest, hard-working intellectual willing to propose detailed policy solutions on difficult issues, but who wasn’t able to win the outcomes he’d hoped — at least on the budget and entitlement reform.

“He is certainly the intellectual leader of the conservative approach to fiscal responsibility, meaning he did more than anybody to warn about the need for entitlement reform and put out a bunch of solutions to address those solutions,” said Maya MacGuineas, President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a budget watchdog group.

“When he was in a leadership position, the policies enacted had the opposite effect and did a great deal of damage to the fiscal situation,” she added.

Ryan’s office did not return a request for comment for this story, but Ryan discussed what he views as his greatest accomplishments and disappointments in various public appearances this week.

Ryan said tax reform and an increase in defense spending were his biggest accomplishments at the press conference announcing his retirement.

“These I see as lasting victories that make this country more prosperous and more secure for decades to come,” he said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the tax bill would push economic growth to 3.3 percent this year, and add an overall 0.7 percent to the size of the economy, on average, each year through 2028.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), an appropriator, said Ryan was the best Speaker he’d served with in his tenure in Congress.

“His tenure has been marked by exceptional accomplishments — the largest tax cut and reform in a generation; the most regulatory reform for any Congress in the modern age; the most substantial defense buildup in 15 years; the end of the individual mandate in Obamacare and a host of other important legislative accomplishments,” Cole said.

In an interview on CNN, Ryan pointed to political losses, not rising deficits, as the biggest disappointments, mentioning the loss of the House majority in 2006 and Mitt Romney’s losing presidential ticket, on which he was the vice presidential candidate, in 2012.

The tax bill and the new defense spending have exacerbated the budget deficit.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the tax bill alone will add $1.9 trillion to national deficits through 2028, and even more if some of the expiring provisions are scrapped, as is likely. 

Asked about the swelling deficits, Ryan essentially blamed the Senate, noting the House had passed entitlement reforms.

“I’m extremely proud of the fact that the House passed the biggest entitlement reform in the history of the House of Representatives. Do I regret the fact that the Senate did not pass it, yes,” he said.

Ryan also cast his legacy as having normalized the pursuit of meaningful entitlement reform.

“But I feel from all the budgets that I’ve passed, normalizing entitlement reform, pushing the cause of entitlement reform, and the House passing entitlement reform, I’m very proud of that fact,” he said.

Plenty of Republicans agreed with Ryan this week, arguing it wasn’t his fault that deficits had spiked under his Speakership.

“Paul Ryan’s put things on the table as chairman of the Budget Committee, and we’ve passed them out of the House. The problem is that it requires more than just the House doing it,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), an appropriator.

“You cannot balance the budget looking at only 30 cents of every dollar you spend, particularly when 15 of those 30 cents are defense,” he continued, alluding to the share of federal spending devoted to discretionary defense and nondefense spending, the main focus of the federal appropriations process.

Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a staunch fiscal conservative, noted that Ryan became a subject of attack ads after he advocated reforms to Medicare that might have reduced spending. 

“Ryan for a decade had been out saying ‘We have to save Medicare,’ and he was viciously attacked for it,” Schweikert said.

He argued the failure to win entitlement reform reflected the difficulties both parties have in advocating for changes to Medicare or Social Security.

Democrats, who for years ran against the Ryan budget, are less sympathetic.

“Speaker Ryan’s legacy of complaining about our deficits and debt is only surpassed by how much he’s increased our deficits and debt,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee. 

Stan Collender, a budget expert and former Democratic staffer for both the House and Senate Budget committees, said Ryan ultimately did what he could and focused on what was politically beneficial and achievable.

His biggest policy legacy will be the tax cuts, which Republicans argue will grow the economy but critics say contributed to a spiraling deficit crisis.

“He decided that the tax cut and spending increase would be good for Republicans so, damn the huge deficit and national debt hike that was being projected, he allowed them to move ahead,” Collender wrote following Ryan’s announcement.

“Paul Ryan’s most lasting legacy as speaker of the House of Representatives will be as the person who enabled permanent trillion-dollar deficits in the United States,” he said. 

Tags Budget David Schweikert deficits John Yarmuth Mario Diaz-Balart Mitt Romney Paul Ryan tax cuts Tom Cole

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