How to Judge Paul Ryan's Fiscal Conservatism

August 20, 2012

A front-page story in Saturday’s Washington Post carries the headline, “Ryan’s funding requests blur image as deficit hawk” (different online). That is, Rep. Paul Ryan has sought federal funding for projects in his district, even when he has voted against the relevant spending program, such as President Obama’s $787 billion “stimulus” bill. But I don’t think that’s the best way to judge a congressman’s fiscal conservatism. The question is, did he vote against excessive spending? Did he work in committee, with his colleagues, and in the national debate to end programs and cut spending?

Sure, it might be best if fiscal conservatives crossed their arms and refused to participate in the standard congressional practice of seeking federal funds for one’s own district or state. But that’s not likely to happen in a political world where members of Congress assume that “bringing home the bacon” is essential to reelection. (Political scientist James L. Payne argued in his book The Culture of Spending that in fact members don’t have to do that to get reelected, and he pointed to people like Sen. William Proxmire [D-WI], author of the book Uncle Sam: The Last of the Bigtime Spenders, who made their careers as opponents of pork and waste. But most political consultants would reject such advice.)

I recall Sen. Phil Gramm, who actually switched parties and resigned from Congress (and then successfully got his seat back as a Republican) in the pursuit of spending restraint. He said, ”If we should vote next week on whether to begin producing cheese in a factory on the moon, I almost certainly would oppose it…On the other hand, if the government decided to institute the policy, it would be my objective to see that a Texas contractor builds this celestial cheese plant, that the milk comes from Texas cows, and that the Earth distribution center is located in Texas.” Not exactly a candidate for the next edition of Profiles in Courage, but I understand the realpolitik calculation.

Ron Paul puts earmarks for his district in spending bills, then votes against the bills, which nevertheless pass overwhelmingly. Again, not exactly worth a gold star, but he does consistently vote against spending bills.

So Paul Ryan voted against the stimulus bill and then sought stimulus funds for his Wisconsin district. I think the more important thing is that he voted, worked, spoke out, and campaigned against a bill that he called a “wasteful spending spree.” Even though he’d have fought Phil Gramm tenaciously about where the milk for that cheese factory on the moon should come from.

As I say, the test for a fiscal conservative is how he votes on budget-busting bills. And there, Paul Ryan has a real problem. Consider his votes during his 14 years in Congress and particularly during the 8 years of the Bush administration:

FOR the No Child Left Behind Act (2001)
FOR the Iraq war (2002)
FOR the Medicare prescription drug entitlement (2003)
FOR Head Start reauthorization (2007)
FOR Economic Stimulus Act (January 2008)
FOR extending unemployment benefits (2008)
FOR TARP (2008)
FOR GM/Chrysler bailout (2008)
FOR $192 billion anti-recession spending bill (2009)

That is the record that could “blur [his] image as deficit hawk.”

Fiscal conservatives in Congress really ought to refuse to participate in the pork process. But members who have passed one of the few congressional acts to actually push back against spending, used their presidential campaigns to push the Republican party toward fiscal conservatism and inspired the rise of the tea party, or developed a budget plan that would arguably bring the rate of spending increase down from stratospheric to merely exorbitant should get some credit for that.

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