Column

Cruelty toward the poor trails Paul Ryan’s tenure in Washington

The curtain comes down on a career spent in the service of making life harder for ordinary Americans.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11:  House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), walks away after announcing that he will not seek re-election for another term in Congress. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 11: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), walks away after announcing that he will not seek re-election for another term in Congress. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) announced this week that he will not run for re-election later this year, bringing down the curtain on his long career of antagonism toward the plight of the nation’s poor and disadvantaged people.

Though Ryan’s public persona has been characterized, off-and-on, as something of a serious and deep thinker on issues related to poverty, taxation, and welfare policy, his record — and now legacy — in public life is one of consistent cruelty. For the entirety of his nearly 20-year career in the House and, especially, since holding the Speaker’s gavel since 2016, Ryan’s single-minded purpose in governance has been to seek and destroy federal support for the poor. 

Advertisement

Ryan came to Congress in 1998, pledging to bring discipline and reform to Social Security and other federal welfare programs that he’s hated since his college days.

Ironically, Ryan owes, in great part, his personal and political success to the Social Security payment he and his family received following his 55-year-old father’s death, when Ryan was 16 years old. In other words, the welfare-cutting Speaker got his start in life by earning a B.A. in economics and political science at the Miami University of Ohio, with money provided by his late father’s welfare payments.

That was just the start of Ryan’s hypocrisy.

In 2014, Ryan displayed his callous disregard for the suffering of poor and hungry Americans when he argued against progressive budget proposals that urged giving low-income students free lunches. “The left is making a big mistake here,” Ryan said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”

Advertisement

Indeed, such mean-spirited remarks are a Ryan trademark, reflecting his affection for the rugged, selfish individualism popularized by novelist Ayn Rand in works like The Fountainhead  and Atlas Shrugged. Ryan said as much in a 2005 Atlas Society speech, in which he noted that he demands his staff read the book, citing it as an inspiration for his political career.

“But the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said. “And the fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.”

Ryan partially accomplished his mission last year with the passage of a draconian tax bill, pushed by GOP congressional leaders and the Trump administration, that largely benefits the nation’s wealthiest people while heaping new suffering on low- and middle-income Americans.

“In terms of cuts, the bill essentially repeals the Affordable Care Act, which will leave 13 million more U.S. residents without health insurance after a decade, and raises premiums by 10 percent for those who depend on the Affordable Care Act exchanges for health care,” Bishop Dwayne D. Royster, political director PICO National Network, a faith-based and grassroots organization, said in a statement after the legislation was signed into law in December. “The tax proposal also adds a trillion dollars to the federal deficit, which will trigger automatic cuts in Medicare funding that amounts to $25 billion annually.”

Advertisement

Royster placed the lion’s share of the blame for the law’s passage at Ryan’s feet. “House Speaker Paul Ryan has chosen to eliminate the safety net that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security provide in an effort to fund the tax plan, which benefits the rich,” he said at the time. 

With the exception of his legion of dedicated defenders, few will remember Ryan’s legacy on Capitol Hill with much fondness. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias noted, his tenure as House Speaker “did not amount to much,” as many of his big ideas about reforming the welfare state stalled in a gridlocked Congress. He writes:

The dream of Social Security privatization that launched his policy relevance is dead. The Medicare privatization plan that relaunched his policy relevance is also dead. His reputation as a deficit hawk has been exposed as a sham. He didn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he didn’t undo the Obama administration’s financial regulations. The year isn’t over yet, but Congress has basically abandoned hope of doing anything else.

Ryan’s tenure as Speaker is akin to the old “Leave it to Beaver” character, Eddie Haskell, a weaselly sneak who repeatedly hid his devious deeds behind polite palaver. How better to describe a politician who poses as a leader for racial inclusivity, yet apologizes for President Trump’s racism by suggesting his unending litany of insensitive and offensive comments and actions were merely a part of the president’s on-the-job learning curve?

Indeed, in defense of Trump’s support for the white nationalists who led violent attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia — melees that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer — Ryan famously said: “I know his heart is in the right place.”

Advertisement

Enough said. Without question, Ryan’s legacy will be remembered by poor Americans and people of color with the same brutality and ill will that Ryan aimed at them.