Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential candidate, may reprise a favorite campaign theme in his debate with Vice President Joe Biden tonight: Reliance on the federal government is bad.
President Barack Obama “looks to government as the great benefactor,” Ryan said at a “Values Voter Summit” in Washington on Sept. 14. In his own hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin, Ryan said, “a lot of good happens without government commanding it, directing it or claiming credit for it.”
At least one Janesville company owes some of its success to the government. That’s Ryan Incorporated Central, the construction firm run by Ryan’s cousins where he worked during the year before his election to Congress in 1998.
In April of this year, Ryan Inc. Central was awarded a $4.9 million Illinois highway interchange project that’s funded in part by the federal government. According to government websites, the company also expressed interest in contracts awarded by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture Department in the past two years. In 1995, it received a U.S. government contract worth about $6 million to build a golf course at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington.
Ryan Inc. President Adam Ryan, a second cousin of Paul Ryan, says the company gets the bulk of its revenue from private jobs such as building landfills and leveling ground for new warehouses, and that doing occasional work for the government doesn’t conflict with Paul Ryan’s view that federal spending should be curbed. The congressman has never helped the company get a government contract, he said.
“We made a conscious decision before my time here to focus on private work,” Adam Ryan said in a telephone interview. “We bid on a federal project every couple of years.”
Today, the company does “almost no government work,” he said. “In previous incarnations, we did a lot of state highway work in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.”
Ryan, the vice presidential candidate, has no connection to any federal contracts won by his family’s business, Brendan Buck, a campaign spokesman, said in an e-mail.
“Unlike President Obama, the congressman understands that people -- not government -- build their businesses,” Buck said.
Still, Ryan Inc.’s history runs counter to the hardline stance against federal spending that some supporters of the Republican ticket have espoused, said Don Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland in College Park.
The company “would have had a very difficult time building itself into what it is without the government’s role,” Kettl said in a telephone interview.
Ryan Inc. is a successor to a company founded in 1884 by Paul Ryan’s great grandfather. It specialized in railroad construction before expanding into road work and mining, according to its website. By the 1940s, it was a “full-service grading contractor serving both private industrial and public transportation customers,” the website says.
Today, Ryan Inc. may have as many as 400 employees during its busiest season, said Jeff Schultz, the company’s human resources manager. He declined to disclose its annual revenue, except to say it’s typically less than $100 million. The firm’s chief executive officer is Patrick Ryan, also a second cousin of the Wisconsin congressman.
Paul Ryan worked for the family business in 1997 and 1998 as a marketing consultant, after a stint in Washington as a speech writer and aide to lawmakers including Republican Representatives Jack Kemp and Sam Brownback. He returned to Washington as a U.S. representative in January 1999.
“He was very effective” at the company, said Adam Ryan, who was in the same 1988 graduating class as Paul at Janesville’s Joseph A. Craig High School, where Adam was named most likely to succeed and Paul the biggest brown-noser.
“In a short amount of time, he made a lot of contacts, found a lot of potential work to bid on,” Adam Ryan said. “It’s not surprising given his subsequent success.”
His cousin isn’t involved in the business now and has no ownership stake in it, Adam Ryan said. He said Ryan has never pushed the company to pursue government work and had nothing to do with its landing the golf course project awarded when he was a senior Brownback aide.
The Illinois highway contract that Ryan Inc. received this year was part of a $31 billion program called Illinois Jobs Now! that receives federal funding, according to a May press release from the state’s transportation department. The Illinois jobs package includes $3.7 billion from the Obama stimulus program, which Paul Ryan voted against.
Illinois raised sales taxes on items including candy and sweetened tea to help pay back 20-year bonds connected to the project, according to a fact sheet on the program.
In 2010, Ryan Inc. Central appeared on a government website’s list of interested vendors for two separate federal projects. One, valued at between $250,000 and $500,000, involved seeding, mulching and re-grading a former Michigan copper mine site. The company didn’t compete for the work, Adam Ryan said.
It did bid on an Illinois cemetery construction project with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said. The $23 million grave-site expansion was awarded to another vendor in August 2010. Ryan Inc. received “sub-sub contractor” work, Adam Ryan said. He said he couldn’t remember the exact nature of his company’s role or how much it was paid.
Ryan Inc. isn’t bidding on any current federal contracts, Adam Ryan said. It still pursues golf course work, he said.
Golf Course Controversy
With the 1995 golf contract, to build the third 18-hole course at Andrews Air Force Base, the company found itself on the periphery of a debate over government spending. Nonprofit groups and elected officials including Republican Chris Shays, then a U.S. representative from Connecticut, called the course a symbol of waste, according to media reports at the time.
U.S. Representative Pete DeFazio and two other Democratic lawmakers asked the U.S. General Accounting Office, as the government watchdog agency was then known, to review the project. Funding for the golf course could have been used for other purposes such as building a youth center, the GAO said.
An online government database of contract awards shows 24 transactions with Ryan Inc. Central, all related to its work on the golf course in the 1990s.
While he supports the Republican ticket, Adam Ryan says efforts by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to cut federal spending if they are elected may not be the best thing for Ryan Inc., even if it doesn’t aggressively pursue government contracts.
“It might hurt,” Adam Ryan said. “In terms of infrastructure spending, while we don’t benefit much directly, it does keep our competitors busy.”