One of the ways in which Speaker Ryan’s agenda has differed from conventional Republican legislative priorities is in his focus on fighting poverty and expanding opportunity. He believes that conservative policies can help the poor and middle class, and he sees this platform as an important way to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party. Mr. Ryan also recognizes the balance between seeking to reform agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and pursuing reform in areas important to consumers such as student loan debt, mortgage lending, and “the disappearing middle class.”
In July 2014, then-Chairman Ryan and his staff released a document entitled “Expanding Opportunity in America,” in which they lay out a summary of legislative initiatives intended to expand income opportunities, especially for the poor. Although a main tenet of the paper is to encourage work and lessen the size and scope federal benefits programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, there is also a focus on reforming current student loan and higher education policies. In this paper, Mr. Ryan targets federal aid programs as the reason for high tuition and massive student loan debt. Under initiatives set forth in the document, the federal government would reduce its federal student aid programs so that it is no longer “supporting failing schools or stoking tuition inflation.” Student loans and the cost of higher education have been salient topics in the presidential campaigns, and the issue has resonated with young voters who support Senator Sanders. It is likely that Speaker Ryan will help move education policy discussions in this reform direction.
During his time as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Mr. Ryan held numerous hearings in which he highlighted his anti-poverty proposals. However, Speaker Ryan still has some reputational damage to repair after he made some public statements about individuals receiving public assistance that were seen by anti-poverty advocates as less than sympathetic. Mr. Ryan has continued to push for the reforms he laid out in “Expanding Opportunity in America,” and may use discussions around student loan debt and the high cost of college to lay the foundation for some of those policy initiatives. It is clear that any public assistance related legislation that he will allow to come to the House floor will need to follow the path and theme set forth in Mr. Ryan’s anti-poverty plans. Common themes like encouraging work programs for those receiving assistance and supporting private charities to work with communities will need to be at the forefront of the discussion to be included in Speaker Ryan’s House floor agenda.
In January, Speaker Ryan moderated the Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in South Carolina along with South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. The forum gathered Republican presidential candidates (notably, missing from the group were Donald Trump and Ted Cruz) to discuss ways to address poverty in America. The policy-heavy discussion featured varying approaches by different candidates, but repeatedly came back to the failure of existing federal programs to address the root causes of poverty. Among the ideas discussed were improving treatment of nonviolent drug offenders, expanding federal Pell grant access, giving states more control over poverty and welfare programs, and increasing work incentives. Mr. Ryan and many in the GOP want to challenge the notion that combatting poverty is only a Democratic issue.
Most recently, Speaker Ryan met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in early February as he considers adopting a broad anti-poverty plan supported by black Democrats in the Capitol. The plan includes shifting more federal money to parts of the country with persistent and high rates of poverty. With the support of some on the Republican side, Mr. Ryan says he will discuss targeted poverty funding with Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, an influential CBC member. During his time in Congress, Mr. Ryan has met with CBC members to try to find common ground on poverty alleviation policies. While there has generally been substantive disagreements, targeted funding, especially the 10-20-30 strategy in which at least 10 percent of federal funding for poverty programs goes to districts in which 20 percent of the population has lives below the poverty line for at least 30 years, has been an area of agreement. Presidential politics will make sweeping anti-poverty reform difficult, but Mr. Ryan has shown a significant openness to exploring areas of possible reform.
Speaker Ryan’s strategy of addressing poverty and his willingness to find common ground across the political spectrum fit into his broader vision of a more inclusive Republican Party. It remains to be seen how much ideological purity the GOP conservative wing will demand, especially in an election year, and how a highly partisan electorate will respond. But it seems clear that Ryan is looking much farther ahead to well-being of the party and his own political ambitions.