Earlier this month House Speaker Paul Ryan, long enamored of the idea of destroying the New Deal/Great Society legacy, publicly said he wanted to make his long-frustrated desire to go after entitlement programs Congress’s big goal for 2018.
“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said during an appearance on Ross Kaminsky’s talk radio show ”… Frankly, it’s the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the health care entitlements — because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”
This signal that Ryan once again wants to take on the Great White Whale of wildly unpopular Medicare cuts collides, of course, with Donald Trump’s 2016 promise (repeated at least six times) to leave that program alone. And doing something that controversial in an election year seems extremely unlikely, particularly given Congress’s inability in 2017 to get it together to repeal and replace Obamacare, a topic of much greater unanimity among Republicans than “entitlement reform.”
And so, within days, Ryan was reformulating his 2018 wish list to leave out Medicare but instead focus on the conservative-pleasing prospect of cuts in entitlements mainly benefiting Those People:
Ryan on Wednesday denied that reform would involve Medicare cuts.
“The kinds of the entitlement reform that we are going to be pursuing are the kinds to get people on welfare to work,” he said.
This talk from Ryan is presumably a bid to get on the same demagogic page with his president, who is reportedly planning a big “welfare reform” pitch in 2018. If Social Security and Medicare are indeed off the table, then the next cookie on the plate for entitlement reformers is to go after Medicaid — which most Republicans were more than willing to slash in the context of Obamacare repeal — SNAP, disability benefits, and other programs that are less beloved among Republican voters than the big middle-class programs. And one can make a case that if 2018 is a base election and the categorical imperative for the GOP is to get their base whipped up into a hate frenzy against poor and nonwhite people, then entitlement reform (perhaps along with Trump’s signature harsh immigration policies) could even be a political positive.
But today Mitch McConnell seems to be closing off even that avenue to a Season of Entitlement Reform for Ryan:
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell threw cold water Thursday on the idea of doing welfare and entitlement reform on a partisan basis next year. He told Axios’ Mike Allen that he “would not expect to see” welfare reform on the agenda in 2018.
“We have to have Democratic involvement. So things like infrastructure … to do something in that area we’re going to have to have Democratic participation.”
This is Washington-speak (McConnell’s native tongue) for an edict that the Senate leadership is ruling out the use of the budget reconciliation process — the procedure used successfully on tax cuts and unsuccessfully on health care this year — for an attack even on the less popular entitlements, in part because it would poison the well for any deals with Democrats on pleasant preelection goodies like infrastructure spending.
More broadly, McConnell and Ryan appear to be on opposite sides of a very basic question: Do you use political power to maintain control, or to achieve ideological goals even at the risk of losing power?
To Mitch McConnell, who has never shown much interest in any principles other than power for power’s sake, this is the ultimate no-brainer: You don’t do anything that will risk Republican control of Congress in what will already be a very difficult midterm election. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, is gripped by a Randian dream of radically shrinking government. Who knows when Republicans will again enjoy trifecta control of Congress and the White House? Shouldn’t they use their power now to go after Big Government?
In the end, however, doing what Ryan wants requires cooperation from McConnell and from Trump, so both the Senate and the White House effectively hold veto power over any plans in the House to attack middle-class or “welfare” entitlements. So McConnell’s terse and dismissive remarks today could be the ball game for 2018. No wonder Ryan is reportedly thinking about retirement.