When he was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Paul Ryan was frustrated when decisions about tax and other legislation under his committee’s jurisdiction emanated from the House leadership offices rather than from his committee. When he was elected Speaker last fall, he promised to change that, and, in the “Better Way” package of policy proposals, he has delivered.
House committee chairmen drove the process, and their staffers have been working intensely with their bosses and with members for months to put ideas to paper for each of the six task forces—poverty, health care, national security, the Constitution, the economy, and of course, tax reform. In the separate events releasing each of the reports, Ryan put the committee chairmen forward to give them credit for the work they had done in developing the proposals.
The first one released was the plan of the Task Force on Poverty, Opportunity, & Upward Mobility.
Developing new ideas to win the decades-long War on Poverty, which is at best a stalemate, has been a priority issue for Ryan. When he was the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket in 2012, he fought hard to put his new ideas for addressing poverty on the campaign’s agenda.
It wasn’t easy, but he succeeded and gave one of the best, most visionary speeches of the campaign on October 24, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio, (site of the 2016 Republican National Convention). He spoke of the dignity of work, the importance of quality education, and strengthening the safety net for those who need help the most.
The poverty task force incorporated that vision in developing its report, outlining policies to “improve education and training so more can succeed in today’s economy” and “help welfare recipients enter, reenter, and remain in the workforce” with resources, skills, and incentives to lift themselves out of poverty.
There has been some criticism of the decision to issue white papers rather than ready-to-introduce legislation. But that would absolutely, positively have been the wrong approach.
Before getting mired in legislative details, people need to know the vision and what members plan to accomplish with the legislation. The task forces do offer specific policy proposals, but they are presented in a way designed to explain the changes they would bring and make the case about why the changes are needed. They must sell the vision before mind-numbing details.
In addition, providing drafts of bills would have signaled inflexibility and that the policy decisions were set in stone. Instead, the committee chairs and leadership did a number of briefings with members to explain the outlines of their proposals, some of the threshold decisions that have been made, and, importantly, to discuss options.
This summer and fall, members will, in turn, get feedback from their constituents about what would work and what needs changing when they take the ideas on the road during townhall meetings in their districts this summer and campaigns this fall. This was an inclusive process, and the conversations are continuing to shape the details.
No doubt, everyone will find something to like in these packages, and everyone will find something to oppose. But the process has begun, and the policy agenda for a new Congress definitely is taking shape. This is the most serious effort to outline a policy agenda before an election that any previous Congress has attempted.
In some ways, the task force reports evoke former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America—a series of poll-tested proposals that members pledged to pass if Republicans were to win control of Congress in the 1994 elections after 40 years out of power. In the aftermath of opposition to HillaryCare, they succeeded and went on to pass dozens of bills in marathon sessions in 1995.
One of the most important was welfare reform. President Clinton vetoed the legislation three times before he finally signed it, but the law was an anchor-point in fulfilling the Contract’s promise. In 1996, Congress eliminated the failed New Deal-era Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and replaced it with the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which established strong requirements for states to help welfare recipients prepare for work and find jobs.
“As a result of these and other reforms, employment rates for single mothers with children increased by 15 percent through 2007 compared with 1995,” the task force report says. Much of the progress of the 1990s has been undone by the Obama administration, so a new generation of reform is much needed.
The House Republican task force reports are a much more detailed contract with America. But they serve the same purpose: Elect us to create a new path for opportunity and prosperity. Each white paper contains dozens of policy recommendations. Office holders and candidates would be well-advised to use the Better Way white papers in their campaigns this fall. That would create a national narrative for change and get away from the skirmishing and circular firing squads that Republicans too often seem to prefer.
The collection of “A Better Way” reports evokes the ever-optimistic, inclusive spirit of Ryan’s mentor, Jack Kemp. With all due respect to the late Mr. Kemp, however, Paul Ryan has much better leadership skills than his mentor, and they are evident here.
Take, for example, the task force reports on poverty, health care, and tax reform. They are separate papers, but very much in harmony with one another. The process could have produced a hodgepodge of differing ideas, but instead, they are organized around a key vision of hope, growth, and opportunity.
The tax reform proposal from Chairman Kevin Brady would make “the tax code simpler, fairer, and flatter” by closing loopholes, eliminating special interest carve-outs, and limiting deductions. The plan would lower tax rates and reduce the double taxation on savings and investment. The goal: To make it “easier to create jobs, raise wages, and expand opportunity for all Americans.”
The health reform task force, chaired by Chairmen Brady, Fred Upton, John Kline, and Tom Price, contains tax provisions as well, providing a refundable, advanceable tax credit for people without the offer of job-based insurance and who earn too much to qualify for public programs like Medicaid. The goal is to provide tax subsidies that are more equal to those received by people with job-based health insurance and to make policies more portable.
The biggest push-back from the right on this is that they instinctively prefer a tax deduction rather than a credit. But a tax deduction is worth little or nothing to the people who are most likely to be uninsured and who most need help in purchasing insurance. They may make too little to even pay taxes, but even if they do, their tax bracket is so low that the deduction may reduce the price of a policy for them by only 10%. The task force wisely opted for the credit approach.
The health plan also would devolve much more control over decisions involving health insurance and Medicaid to the states, allowing them more flexibility and providing additional resources to better serve their citizens with more choices and more options in plan design and service delivery. On Medicaid in particular, the current, abuse-prone federal payment system would be replaced with per-person allotments to states based on four eligibility groups: the elderly, the disabled, children, and able-bodied adults. The initial per-person payments would be based on historical spending patterns for these groups in the states, giving people more choices including the option of escaping the Medicaid ghetto and getting private insurance.
And the House GOP’s poverty, opportunity, and upward mobility plan from Chairmen Mike Conaway, Tom Price, John Kline, Jeb Hensarling, and Kevin Brady is designed to help people “escape poverty and earn success.” The plan would expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work in exchange for welfare benefits. They want to realign incentives so people actually benefit when they move from welfare to work, focusing support on the people who need it most.
Speaker Ryan said the poverty plan will achieve “a more inclusive, more inspiring, a more confident America.” In his June 3 radio address, Ryan said, “…instead of trapping people in poverty, we can get them on the ladder of opportunity…reward work…open our economy so everyone can make the most of their lives.”
There are few blockbuster new ideas in the reports, but that actually is a good thing. Many of these ideas have been germinating in the conservative movement for years, if not decades, building on the success of initiatives like Health Savings Accounts, Medicare Part D, and Medicare Advantage. The roadmap has been created, and with enough visionary conservatives in Congress—and a president to sign the legislation—the vision of Speaker Ryan and his mentor, Jack Kemp, would brighten America’s future.