Paul Ryan promotes his brand as a deficit hawk so diligently that he has been known to refer to himself in the third person as Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk. “Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk is also a growth advocate,” he said on Fox News in November after releasing the Republican tax-cut plan. “Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk knows you have to have a faster-growing economy, more jobs, bigger take-home pay.”
Ryan’s “fiscal conservative” brand has gotten impressive traction, but now that he’s announcing he’s leaving Congress in January, it’s worth noting (not for the first time) that Paul Ryan Deficit Hawk has never behaved like a deficit hawk. In his two decades in Washington, Ryan has consistently supported tax cuts and spending hikes that have boosted deficits, while consistently trashing Democrats for failing to cut deficits. It will inevitably be described as “ironic” that Ryan came to Congress when the budget was in surplus and left with deficits heading toward $1 trillion, but those deficits are his greatest legacy.
Ryan loves to talk about reducing the national debt, but what he loves to do is reduce taxes, which increases the national debt. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Republican tax bill President Donald Trump signed last year will produce an additional $1.5 trillion in red ink over the next decade. Ryan was also an exuberant supporter of the George W. Bush tax cuts, which have added more than $5 trillion to the debt since 2001. And he repeatedly proposed even larger tax cuts when he chaired the House Budget Committee. The Tax Policy Center calculated that the 2013 “Ryan budget,” for example, would have reduced federal revenue by nearly $6 trillion over a decade.
It’s not quite fair to say that Ryan never met a tax cut he didn’t like. He opposes “refundable” tax credits for the working poor, which he considers welfare spending. And he went to war against Barack Obama’s stimulus bill in 2009, which provided $300 billion in tax cuts to 95 percent of the public. But it is fair to say that Ryan never met a tax hike he didn’t dislike, even though taxes raise the revenues that cut deficits. He signed Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge, and he has been one of its most vigilant enforcers on Capitol Hill. Not only did Ryan fight Obama’s various efforts to raise taxes on the rich, but he also has helped protect tax breaks for companies that manage private jets, the “carried interest loophole” that allows hedge fund managers to pay lower tax rates, and numerous other tax breaks for special interests ranging from NASCAR owners to nuclear power plants. He has helped lead the Republican crusade to eliminate the estate tax on behalf of the heirs of multimillionaires.
Ryan’s defenders point out that while he’s pushed for lower taxes, he’s also been a consistent voice for lower spending, and deficits happen only when the government spends more than it brings in. But while he has been a voice for less government spending, especially by Democratic presidents, he’s repeatedly voted for big expansions of government spending. He’s been a vocal supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have added more than $2 trillion to the debt. He was a strong advocate for Bush’s homeland security spending binge, and he recently pushed through even bigger increases in military spending than Trump requested.
Ryan’s support for higher spending has not been limited to defense and homeland security. He supported Bush’s expansion of prescription drug benefits, as well as the auto bailout and Wall Street bailout during the financial crisis. And while Trump’s original budget proposal included deep cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and other nonmilitary spending, the final compromise Ryan shepherded through the House boosted nonmilitary as well as military spending.