James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

What Paul Ryan hopes to do

January 5, 2011

In honor of the Congress, the good folks over at e21 have republished a column by Rep. Paul Ryan on what he wants to accomplish. This is good stuff:

Let me be specific: I propose to modernize Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security so these critical programs can meet their mission in the 21st century; secure access to universal health coverage where patients and doctors – not government or insurance company bureaucrats – are the nucleus of the system; restructure Federal job training programs of the past century to better prepare our workforce for the challenges in today’s global economy. There are dozens of additional policy reforms in the Roadmap consistent with the mutually reinforcing goals of individual opportunity and income security.

Those who claim the mantle of compassion and concern for the working class should consider this: The greatest threat to our social insurance programs today is the icy indifference shown by those unwilling to have an adult conversation on how to avert their looming collapse. Not only are the major health and retirement security programs approaching bankruptcy; the looming debt crisis will hit hardest those most reliant on the safety net the Federal government helps provide.

As the budget’s ominous trajectory makes clear, by asking government to do everything, it will, in the end, barely be able to do anything. Who, then, will have set us on a path back to the future, to the days when there were no effective federal safety net programs in place? Those who offer modernizing reforms to strengthen these programs? Or those who stand on the sideline, tearing ideas down rather than proposing credible alternatives – all while the programs themselves drown in debt?

The issue is not whether we ought to “zero out the state” or whether “all government action is automatically dismissed as quasi-socialist.” The issue is rather more subtle and sophisticated than that. The real debate is about whether and how government ought to create the foundations for growth and prosperity, securing a safety net for those who need it most; about how government can act now to avert a catastrophe later.

The truth is that there are two stark, competing philosophies over this matter. I know better than most that the debate will at times be uncomfortable and unpleasant. In ordinary times, political debate concerns the means, not the ends, of government. But we do not live in ordinary times; we live in a time when the first principles of governing are on the table. Nor did we seek this debate; bipartisan failures of the past and our current leaders’ acceleration of their agenda have forced America to make this choice. So we cannot advance to the “day after tomorrow” until we decide today what kind of government we want our nation to have after tomorrow. And that is, right now, an open question.

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