In his first major speech last week as Speaker of the House, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis), third in line to the presidency and Wisconsin's first speaker, veered dramatically from his predecessor, former U.S. Rep. John Boehner, saying the GOP in Congress would challenge President Obama's agenda on all fronts.
That means offering up its own policy prescriptions instead of engaging in "time-travel back to 2009," he said at the Great Hall in the Library of Congress: "So, our No. 1 goal for the next year is to put together a complete alternative to the Left's agenda," he said.
The congressman said another key goal is to win the White House next year. The two goals go hand in hand, he said, because a crystal-clear alternative was needed to give voters a reason to elect a Republican president.
"A great frustration in our party is we have not had a real, national majority in seven years," Ryan said. "We have controlled Congress, but not the presidency. And we need to. This country has big problems. But if we do not have a president who will work with us, we will not solve those problems - that is, while they are still solvable."
One of those problems is the federal government itself, Ryan said, not to mention the Obama administration.
"I don't think all that many people are walking away from this presidency thinking, 'That went well,'" he said. "We still have enormous problems. But now the country is divided. And the federal government has grown arrogant, condescending, and outright paternalistic."
If we want to save the country, Ryan said, the GOP needs a mandate from the people.
"And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas," he said. "And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas. And that's where House Republicans come in."
That means more than just repealing Obama's policies; it means replacing them with its own policies, the speaker said.
"I mean show what we would do, what our ideal policy would be - looking forward to 2017 and beyond," Ryan said. "We owe it to the country to offer a bold, pro-growth agenda. And that is what we are going to do."
During his speech, Ryan homed in on several major areas where he said the GOP needs to act immediately. One was reining in the massive federal bureaucracy.
"And this is the thing (progressives) miss: More bureaucracy means less opportunity - because big government and big business don't fight each other so much as feed each other," he said. "This is how it works: Smart, talented people go into government thinking the only way to fix complicated problems is with complicated laws - laws that only people like themselves can understand. They make new bureaucracies. They put up red tape. And then? And then they go into the private sector and help businesses navigate the very maze they created."
That's how crony capitalists are created, he said.
"And that's why we don't think government should bulk up the bureaucracy," Ryan said. "We think it should break up problems so people can solve them themselves. Don't hire more bureaucrats. Don't leave it up to their discretion. Set clear, firm rules that all of us can live by - rules that tell us what's expected and what's off limits. And then let the people go to work. That, to me, is the conservative insight: Don't outsource to the bureaucracy. Crowdsource."
Creating jobs and raising wages is another priority area for Ryan. And the big obstacle, he said, is the nation's onerous and complicated tax code.
"The Canadians are taxing their small businesses at 15 percent," he said. "But our top tax rate on successful small businesses is effectively 44.6 percent. How can working families compete like that?"
Ryan said the only way to fix the broken tax code was to simplify it, cut loopholes, and use that money to cut tax rates for everybody.
"I also know many of these loopholes will be fiercely defended," he said. "All I can say is we will not be cowed. We are not here to smooth things over. We are here to shake things up."
Lower taxes mean more jobs, and, Ryan said, when there is more work to go around, more people will see their wages go up.
"But there's not much upside to getting a raise if the cost of living goes up too," he said, and he added that first and foremost in curbing the skyrocketing cost of living is to tackle health care.
"There are many things to do, but most urgent is to repeal and replace Obamacare," Ryan said. "When people ask me what's wrong with the law, I usually say to them, how much time do you have? But if I had to point out one thing, it would be the mandates, the restrictions, all the red tape. How do I know they have failed? You notice we don't talk about lowering premiums anymore. We're supposed to be happy if they don't go up by double digits."
Ryan said giving people a true health-care choice would lower those costs.
"Instead of forcing you to buy insurance, we should force insurance companies to compete for your business," he said. "Let people find a plan that works for them. And yes, help people pay for health insurance."
All conservatives can agree on one thing, he said, and that is that government should encourage personal responsibility, not replace it.
"We think prices are going up because people have too few choices, not because they have too many," he said. "And we think this problem is so urgent that, next year, we are going to unveil a plan to replace every word of Obamacare."
Ryan said reducing poverty is another goal.
"There are the millions of people stuck in neutral: 6 million people who have no choice but to work part-time, 45 million people living in poverty," Ryan said. "Conservatives need to have an answer to this - because we do not write people off in this country. We just don't."
The problem is, he said, the federal government comes along and offers those having a hard time subsidies for food, housing, medicine, heat, and on and on and on.
"Add them all up, and we have something like 82 different programs to help people in need," he said. "And we're thinking all these benefits will lift people up. But in fact they hold people back - because, under the law, the minute you start to make real money, these benefits start to disappear - and fast."
Those people are making money, but they are also losing 80 to 90 cents on the dollar in higher taxes and lower benefits, Ryan said.
"So say you're a single mom with one kid," he said. "You're making minimum wage. You're on food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and other assistance. And you hear about a job that pays more. Should you really take that job? The answer, in this country, should always be yes. But can you really blame someone for thinking no? The intentions may be good. But the results are clear: We are trapping people in poverty."
The way out? Remove the traps, require people to work (and make sure it pays to work), and send the money to states so they can experiment.
"Let states and communities try different ideas," Ryan said. "And then test the results. I have found the poorest neighborhoods often are the most creative. They are full of entrepreneurs and innovators - people who really know how to fight poverty. They don't need to be supplanted. They need to be supported. And so this is the difference between the Left and the Right: They look at people in need and see a burden to bear, people to take care of. We look at people in need and see potential."
Strong trade agreements and a successful fight against ISIS are also critical priorities, Ryan said.
As for trade, the deals need to be fair, he said.
"I don't know why we would accept - or even worse, adopt - other countries' corporate welfare when we know our way is better," Ryan said. "There won't be a level playing field - there won't be free and fair trade - unless we work for it. China is out there every day pushing for crony capitalism. So it all comes down to this question: Are we going to write the rules of the global economy-or is China?"
The country also needs a strategy to defeat ISIS, the speaker said.
"Our friends in Europe and Asia and the Middle East are embattled," Ryan said. "We need to give them support. We need to strengthen both our economy and our military to show the world that freedom works. And when we do, the world will see a confident America once again."
A stark choice
Ryan said the people of the country want a choice, and conservatives are well positioned to give them one.
"So what it all comes down to is whether we conservatives have confidence in ourselves," he said. "Do we really believe our philosophy is true? Do we have the best ideas? If so, then I don't see any reason why we should hold back. The truth is, the Left wants to make the debate about personalities. They want to paint us as irresponsible. That's because we all know what the Left stands for. We all know what another progressive presidency would mean: just more of the same."
Conservatives need to put together a positive agenda, and take it to the American people, he said.
"Give people the choice they are yearning for," Ryan urged. "And if next year, this House can say we have done that, then we will have done our job. When the people go to the polls, they will know that a vote for us is a vote for a more prosperous, a more secure, a more confident America. And the rest? Well, the rest will be up to the people - as it should be."
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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