Ryan Bipartisan Image Based More on Style Than Substance

Paul Ryan
Representative Paul Ryan, left, speaks with Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland, during a hearing on Capitol Hill. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Representative Paul Ryan has shown “an ability to work across the aisle” and “find enough common ground to get things done,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said this week in introducing his new running mate to Floridians.

While a review of his record shows little evidence that Ryan has teamed with Democrats to pass bipartisan measures into law, members of both parties say the Wisconsin lawmaker offers a less combative brand of leadership in an era of hyper-partisanship characterized by personal attacks and vilification.

“I don’t believe he represents bipartisanship in the substantive sense,” said Mordecai Lee, a professor of government affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who has followed Ryan’s career. “The credit Ryan deserves is that he’s a kind of measured gentle face of an ideology. He can sit in a room with somebody and have a conversation, and things are so bad in Washington that should be complimented.”

The Romney campaign cites examples of Ryan working with Democrats, including an effort last year with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden on a proposal to overhaul the Medicare health program for seniors. The campaign also touts his work this year with Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, on a measure providing the president with line-item veto authority.

Wisconsin Delegation

In 2008, along with Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and seven other members of his state’s delegation, Ryan requested a waiver to expand his home state’s Medicaid program to uninsured, childless adults.

Democrats who’ve collaborated with him say Ryan’s willingness to reach across the aisle is limited.

Van Hollen had his own line-item-veto bill before teaming with Ryan. On the issue of bipartisanship, he pointed to 23 amendments from Democrats to this year’s Republican budget plan that were defeated under Ryan’s leadership. “Nobody should mistake civility for willingness to compromise,” he said. Ryan’s work with Wyden on Medicare, the issue that’s helped define the Wisconsin Republican’s legislative career, has become a selling point for Romney.

“For future beneficiaries, he and Senator Wyden have come together,” Romney said Aug. 13 in Miami. “This is the kind of bipartisanship we need more of, not less.”

Across the Aisle

Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, touted Wyden as “a well-established Democrat,” and said Romney’s pick shows that he understands the necessity of working across the aisle to make Medicare sustainable.

“We’re going to have to do this in a bipartisan way,” Chaffetz said in an Aug. 15 interview on MSNBC. “Paul Ryan understands that. Mitt Romney understands that.”

The Medicare proposal they co-authored is similar to the most recent version of Ryan’s budget. Both would create a system of private plans subsidized by the government through which seniors would receive vouchers to purchase health care, which would compete with the Medicare program. Ryan’s plan has a lower growth rate, and in recent days, Wyden tried to distance himself from it.

He released a statement calling Romney’s comments “nonsense,” noting that on May 16 he voted against Ryan’s budget that included the Medicare plan.

“Governor Romney needs to learn you don’t protect seniors by making things up, and his comments today sure won’t help promote real bipartisanship,” said Wyden, calling the effort “a policy paper on options.”

At a campaign event today in Glen Allen, Virginia, Ryan said Obama was to blame for partisanship in Washington.

’Most Partisan’

“I’ve served with three presidents since I’ve been in Congress,” he said. “This is the most partisan atmosphere I have ever seen.”

In his 13-year House career, two of the bills Ryan has written have been signed into law, one naming a post office and another modifying excise taxes on arrows. Of the 975 bills Ryan has cosponsored, 22 percent were introduced by Democrats, making him slightly more bipartisan than his Republican peers, according to the GovTrack.us website.

Some Democrats who praise Ryan’s temperament say he doesn’t really compromise with them on substance.

Debt Commission

Representative Allyson Schwartz of Pennsylvania, the second-ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, said Ryan has shown no interest in working with adversaries, including on a bill modeled after the recommendations of the 2010 bipartisan Bowles-Simpson debt commission on which he served. “He could have reached out and found common ground with Democrats and other Republicans on that,” she said.

“I have not seen it,” said former Representative Michael Arcuri, a New York Democrat and member of the House’s Blue Dog Coalition, a group that advocates for smaller government and lower taxes. “He didn’t compromise a lot, I didn’t find, but he was a person who would be willing to talk about it,” said Arcuri, whose membership on the House Rules Committee brought him into contact with Ryan.

Some Republicans also point to Ryan’s support for the bailouts of the auto and banking industries as evidence of his capacity to work with Democrats. Yet, it was former Republican President George W. Bush’s administration that championed the TARP, or Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008.

Broken Ranks

Ryan has broken ranks with many in his party to support legislation to prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity and to grant the District of Columbia voting rights.

Ryan has come to be defined by his budget blueprint that passed the U.S. House two years in a row with no Democratic votes. The plan would reduce spending by $5.3 trillion below Obama’s proposed budget through 2022, including Medicare cuts of $205 billion and reductions to other programs including welfare, agricultural subsidies, food stamps and transportation.

Former Representative Mike Castle, a Republican who’s often worked with Democrats, including supporting their 2009 cap-and-trade bill to limit greenhouse emissions, said Ryan “is very strongly committed to his own beliefs and he’s not heretofore been a middle-of-the-road legislator.”

“I do believe that if one would come to Paul with a position in which he could have back-and-forth, he does have the ability and the will to compromise,” Castle said.

Former Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who worked alongside Ryan for a number of years, says it’s not surprising that Ryan’s record of bipartisanship is thin. As chairman of the budget committee, Ryan presides over a notoriously partisan body, Davis said.

’Not Unique’

“The budget committee is one of the few committees where you get no bipartisanship, ever. It just doesn’t happen,” Davis said. As for Congress, “not many people pass anything nowadays, frankly. He is not unique in this way.”

Former Republican Representative Amo Houghton of New York, who founded the Republican Main Street Partnership, which sought to work with Democrats, said the form of bipartisanship he once knew in Congress is no more.

“I didn’t want to have on my gravestone ‘he was a good Republican,’” he said. “I wanted to be a good citizen.”

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