Will seniors and their families miss Paul Ryan in the U.S. Congress? Not a chance. His impending retirement lifts a dark cloud that has hung over older Americans – not to mention the poor, sick, and disabled – for nearly two decades. Speaker Ryan has spent his 11 terms on Capitol Hill fighting to enrich the wealthy and powerful, while undermining programs that serve as a lifeline for America’s most vulnerable citizens.
As America’s Privatizer-in-Chief, he spearheaded attempts to turn Medicare into a voucher program and to gamble retirees’ Social Security benefits on the whims of Wall Street. He passed legislation in the House to cut more than $1 trillion from Medicaid by imposing per capita caps and turning it into a block grant program. If the Senate had passed it, too, millions of low income Americans would have lost health coverage, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office. At the end of last year, Speaker Ryan muscled-through the Trump/GOP tax giveaway to the rich and profitable corporations, inviting deep cuts to seniors’ earned benefits. “We’re going to have to get back next year  at entitlement reform,” he said last December, “which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.”
Here is a man who has been downright giddy while championing Scrooge-like policies from his powerful perch in Washington. In 2017, he gloated about gutting Medicaid in the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “This is why I’m so excited about it… We are de-federalizing an entitlement, block-granting it back to the states, and capping its growth rate. That’s never been done before,” he told a conservative radio host. Ryan boasted at a National Review forum that he had been “dreaming” of cutting federal Medicaid funds “since you and I were drinking at a keg” – barely able to contain his glee about stripping health coverage from poor people.
Paul Ryan was never a traditional fiscal hawk in the mold of old school Republicans. His fondness for slashing the social safety net while cutting taxes for the rich wasn’t just a matter of dollars and cents. An acolyte of Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy of selfishness,’ Ryan’s disdain for the poor or anyone who relied on federal benefits to survive was deeply ideological.
“He… justified his agenda in moral terms, speaking frequently about ‘makers’ (i.e., people who work and earn good incomes) and ‘takers’ (i.e., lazy people who subsist on government assistance).” – Huffington Post, 4/11/18
At the same time, he was blatantly hypocritical, at least on Social Security. In 2005, he backed President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize the program and risk retirees’ payroll contributions on the stock market. It’s a position he continued to hold as presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 — and during his two-and-a-half years as Speaker. Yet the Speaker himself was a ‘taker’ when he collected Social Security survivor’s benefits after his father died when Ryan was 16. He saved up his Social Security checks to pay for college tuition, but somehow doesn’t see the irony in advocating policies that would compromise other Americans’ ability to collect their own earned benefits.
Like other ideologues, Ryan cloaked his attempts to undermine Social Security and Medicare as “preserving” or “saving” them for future generations. He repeatedly insisted that these programs were going “bankrupt,” when, in fact, there are common sense measures that could keep both trust funds solvent for decades to come – without cutting benefits or raising eligibility ages. But during Ryan’s Speakership, legislation to do just that never made it the floor, including bills from Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others that would boost benefits while infusing Social Security with new revenue – or measures to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
Ryan tried to divide the generations by vowing that any “reforms” to earned benefits wouldn’t affect current retirees – only younger folks like him, ignoring the fact that stagnant wages make it impossible for today’s workers to save enough for retirement to make up for cuts in Social Security benefits.
Thanks to the vigilance of America’s seniors and their advocates, Ryan’s fight to gut the social safety net has fizzled – so far. But he remains as Speaker until the end of the 115th Congress and doesn’t wish to see his quest end in failure.
“Entitlement reform is the one thing, the one other great thing [besides tax cuts] that I spent most of my career working on,” said Ryan at the press conference announcing his retirement. “More work needs to be done [on] entitlements… and I’m going to keep fighting for that.”
Even if Ryan is unable to advance his “entitlement reform” agenda before he leaves Congress, there are other ideologues on the Hill (especially in the Freedom Caucus) who will be happy to take up the mantle. The best way for the poor, the elderly, the disabled and their families to protect and expand these crucial programs is to vote for candidates who champion Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We’ll have the chance this November.