When Reality Interrupts a Good Story
Paul Ryan’s voting record: Big-spending conservatism
By: Andrew Restuccia and Seung Min Kim
August 13, 2012 07:35 PM EDT
Paul Ryan rose to the top of the political ranks on his reputation as a conservative budget hawk. But his voting record shows him to be far from a pure fiscal conservative.
Ryan voted for the $700 billion bank bailout, the biggest Medicare expansion in U.S. history, a massive highway bill that included the “Bridge to Nowhere” and other big-ticket priorities when George W. Bush was president — going to bat for a high-spending GOP agenda that the tea party base now looks on with regret.
“Obviously, those votes certainly don’t make me happy,” said Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Tea Party Express, one of the country’s most influential tea party organizations — though she was quick to say she was pleased with Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate.
“I think that he’s somebody who’ll stand up and accept responsibility for previous actions,” she said. “More importantly than that, he knows that we’re in serious financial trouble, and he has a grasp on the big picture all the way down to the little details.
“There is no perfect politician,” Kremer added. “There are many of them that have had votes that we aren’t happy about. But we were in a different time period then, and those votes are actually what led to this movement being formed.”
A campaign spokesman for Ryan did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Still, Ryan’s voting record shows that he was willing to vote for expensive government programs when some other fiscal conservative said no.
In the fall of 2008, Ryan voted for TARP. Later that year, he voted for loans to help rescue the auto industry, making him one of just 32 Republicans to do so — and his vote came after Romney wrote the New York Times op-ed titled “Let Detroit go bankrupt.”
Even so, critics of that kind of spending joined other conservatives in applauding Romney’s announcement Saturday that Ryan would be on the ticket.
“His record speaks for itself, and he’s going to have to defend those votes,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “But when it comes to entitlement reform and unfunded liabilities, he probably understands and articulates it better than anyone else in the country.”
Ryan’s votes on spending came on top of his support for the Bush-era tax cuts, which liberals complain blew a titanic hole in the budget.
All in all, Ryan’s congressional voting record reveals a standard, loyal Republican. He has voted at least 90 percent of the time with his party since he came to Capitol Hill in 1999, according to The Washington Post’s votes database.
Among the biggest items in Ryan’s spending record was his vote in the fall of 2008 for the $700 billion TARP financial bailout, which drew resistance from many House Republicans despite the Bush administration’s warnings that failing to act could cause an all-out collapse of the financial system.
During House floor debate on Sept. 29, 2008, Ryan said the TARP legislation “offends my principles.” But he added, “I’m going to vote for this bill in order to preserve my principles. In order to preserve this free enterprise system.”
Calling the vote a “Herbert Hoover moment,” Ryan added: “Just maybe this will work. And so for me and for my own conscience, so I can look myself in the mirror tonight and so I can go to sleep with a clear conscience, I want to know that I did everything I could to stop it from getting worse.”
Despite such dire warnings, fiscal hardliners such as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) still voted no on the bailout.
“It was fundamentally wrong for Congress to take $700 billion in bad decisions on Wall Street and transfer that to main street in the form of TARP,” Pence said more than a year later.
In 2003, Ryan also voted to create the Medicare prescription drug benefit, whose cost — initially estimated at $400 billion over a decade, according to the Los Angeles Times — so rankled conservatives that House Republican leaders had to take extraordinary efforts to pass the legislation by a razor-thin majority. That included holding the vote open for hours in the wee hours of the morning.
And during a time when pork-laden highway bills were en vogue among the Capitol Hill GOP, Ryan backed the 2005 transportation legislation that included a litany of earmarks, including for the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. Though the vast majority of the House supported the bill, a handful of anti-earmark hardliners such as Flake and current Speaker John Boehner rejected it.
On Dec. 10, 2008, during the last days of the Bush administration, Ryan was one of just 32 Republicans to vote for legislation that would have provided $14 billion in loans for the industry, citing the potential for layoffs in his district.
“It is clear that the mounting hardships throughout Southern Wisconsin have been downright gut-wrenching,” Ryan said in a statement issued after the vote. He has also said he voted for the package to ensure that the auto industry wouldn’t receive money from the main bank bailout.
But the House bill went nowhere in the Senate. President Barack Obama ultimately used money from TARP to help bail out the auto industry.
Ryan, like many Republicans, also voted to raise the debt limit at least five times during the Bush administration, when such votes were considered routine and uncontroversial.
Even at the time, much of the GOP-backed spending was unpopular with fiscal conservatives who feared their party was veering big time from its small-government message.
“How do we convince the voters in the midterm elections that two more years of Republican control will produce anything more than bigger government and growing deficits?” Flake lamented in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in September 2005, little more than a year before voters threw Congress back to the Democrats.
The Journal’s John Fund later quoted Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) as calling the prescription drug vote “a watershed event, the moment when Republicans who stood for limited government realized they were the enemy of their own leadership.”
To be sure, Ryan has become one of the most influential voices — if not the top voice — in the Republican Party on fiscal matters. And his voting history largely reflects that.
Along with most House Republicans, Ryan voted in July 2011 in favor of the so-called Cut, Cap and Balance Act — the method favored by conservatives to raise the debt ceiling while reining in future spending. It included more than $110 billion in budget cuts in fiscal 2012, would have capped federal spending at 18 percent of the nation’s GDP, and would have required that the House and Senate pass a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution that imposed a stricter threshold for raising taxes. Later that year, when the House voted on a stand-alone balanced budget amendment, Ryan was just one of four House Republican to vote “no,” telling POLITICO at the time that the measure didn’t go far enough to halt future tax increases.
And of course, his proposal to overhaul Medicare has become the Republican conservative template for addressing the nation’s huge spending on entitlements.
The Club for Growth says Ryan doesn’t rank among the most conservative lawmakers on the Hill — he has earned just an 88 percent conservative lifetime rating on the organization’s congressional scorecard.
And the organization criticized the Ryan budget earlier this year — calling the plan a “disappointment for fiscal conservatives” because it did not balance the budget quickly enough and it waived the sequester — a set of automatic cuts required under the Budget Control Act.
Still, Chocola credits Ryan with shifting the House GOP toward the House Budget Committee chairman’s vision of a significant Medicare overhaul.
“I was in the House with him, and the Republican majority [at the time] would not have voted for his budget,” Chocola said in an interview. “The fact that he’s moved the conference in the direction of voting for meaningful entitlement reform is a big deal.”
And Ryan didn’t necessarily go all-in on TARP: On Jan. 14, 2009 — less than a week before Obama’s inauguration — Ryan voted to prevent the remaining bailout funds from being released, saying he feared that “the second $350 billion in TARP funding will go far beyond the original mission of preserving overall financial market stability, and instead will be used to fund a heavy-handed, neo-industrial policy.”
“Various industries have already marshaled their lobbyists for a claim on these public dollars,” he said. “And with our federal budget expected to reach historic levels this year, we cannot risk more public funds to be squandered.”
Though much of his policy profile in Congress has been dedicated to fiscal issues, Ryan has also consistently shown his social conservative bona fides in his nearly 14 years on Capitol Hill.
In 2006, Ryan joined nearly all fellow House Republicans to vote for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Ryan also voted to defund Planned Parenthood and has earned a 100 percent vote rating from the anti-abortion group National Right to Life.
Ryan, in 2005, also voted in favor of the so-called Palm Sunday Compromise that allowed the federal courts to intervene in the case of Terri Schiavo, a move meant to save the life of the brain-damaged Florida woman whose family had fought to keep her alive.
Still, Ryan in November 2007 joined the vast majority of Democrats to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Ryan was one of 35 House Republicans to vote in favor of that bill.