On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave his farewell address at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He remarked on Congress’s “greatest unfinished business” and his great “regret” — the failure to pass entitlement reform.
“I believe that we can be the generation that saves our entitlement programs. Frankly, we need to be,” Ryan declared. “And I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reforms have outpaced the political reality, and I consider this our greatest unfinished business.”
The House speaker insisted, “We all know what needs to be done: Strong economic growth, which we have, and entitlement reform to address the long-term drivers of our debt.”
“What continues to plague us is a mandatory spending system that is deeply out of balance and unsustainable. This was the case when I came here 25 years ago and it is the case today,” Ryan lamented. Indeed, even though entitlements are not included in the discretionary federal budget, they drive up the federal debt automatically — without the need to pass Congress.
Ryan insisted that even though Congress did not solve this fundamental problem under his leadership, Republicans had made progress on this issue.
“Not too long ago, few were willing to recognize the scope of this problem, let alone engage on solutions. Our government wasn’t even inclined to examine our long-term fiscal picture,” the speaker said. “We had to go about changing the debate before we could begin to even try and change people’s minds.”
Ryan’s progress on that issue came when he served as chairman of the House Budget Committee. “I’m proud that every year I was Budget chairman, we passed in the House a road map to balancing the budget and paying off our debt and that Tom Price and Diane Black did the same as well,” he recalled.
“In this Congress, we came within one vote of real health care entitlement reform. Think about that,” the speaker argued. This point is debatable — it seems Ryan was referring to the effort to repeal (and unfortunately replace) Obamacare. “Federal health care spending remains the principal driver of entitlement spending. Our bill would have reformed two of our major health care programs to make them sustainable and to meet the health care needs of our country.”
While entitlement reform failed overall, Ryan argued, “we have come a long way and we are closer than people realize. And ultimately, solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today and I regret that.”
He insisted that entitlement reform must be solved, however. “But when the time comes to do this, and it will because it must, the path ahead will be based upon the framework that we have laid out to solve this problem. We can get there. We really can tackle this problem before it tackles us,” Ryan said.
The House speaker was right to lament this key failure, and Republicans and Democrats should listen to this call for reform. That said, the political will for entitlement reform is indeed lacking on both the Left and the Right. President Trump ran on a platform of little to no change, and Democrats are likely to run on “Medicare for all,” so prospects for necessary reform remain bleak.
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