By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – Earlier this Spring, American Idea Foundation President and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was featured on the President George W. Bush Center’s The Strategerist podcast. During the wide-ranging conversation, Ryan reflected on President Bush’s time in office, shared his advice for the next generation of American leaders, and offered perspectives on his time in Congress.
Ryan also touched on the work being done by the American Idea Foundation to promote evidence-based public policies that expand economic opportunities and alleviate poverty. On the podcast, whose name comes from a 2000 Saturday Night Live skit featuring Will Ferrell, Ryan elaborated on some of the solutions he outlined in an interview entitled: Keeping the American Dream Alive, which was featured in the most recent edition of the Bush Center’s online magazine, The Catalyst.
Listen to Ryan’s interview on The Strategerist by clicking here.
On the styles of a successful leader:
“I think there are two styles: There’s intimidation or motivation. There’s inspiration or fear. I’m a big believer in motivating through inspiration and motivation and I have always sort of felt this way….
The best way to organize and motivate people is to get people to pre-agree to a course of action, to agree to an agenda, to agree on a policy course that we are going to implement and run on. And then, if people elect us, we will hold ourselves accountable for doing it. That’s what we did [when I was Speaker of the House] and that made it so much easier to run Congress because I could hold people accountable for keeping their own word that they had made to their constituents. So, when it came time to pass tough legislation and to do difficult things in the majority, we were able to point to the fact that you ran on this and we all agreed we were going to support this agenda and now is the time to execute this piece of this agenda.
It’s the best way to organize and motivate people: Make them a participant. Make people participate in the formation of the idea so they have a stake in it. Stakeholder-legislating, common vision, and getting people to agree to a common vision at the beginning of the process so that the process actually occurs when there is demand for the process, that’s basically my whole theory.”
On what being Speaker of the House really entails:
“It’s a combination between school principal, warden, and traffic cop. It’s very much a management job and it has a great policy meaning. I mean, you decide what goes to the [House] floor and how the floor works and what Congress works on. You’re also basically like a conductor of the symphony because you’re sitting at the rostrum telling these committees to get those bills going through those committees and to get these bills going on the track and then you’re building the pipeline to the floor.
You want to choreograph, over a two-year period, all the various legislation that’s going to happen and you have to choreograph every committee and all the members who are moving that process through based on your timeline. Then events and circumstances blow it up and you have to adapt to things like a terrorist attack or some natural disaster and you have to just bob and weave.
And then, you have to go deal with the other governments. And then you deal with the enemy, which is the Senate! The Democrats are adversaries! That’s the joke we always say, and sorry, it just had to be told because you told me you were Senate staff. We always say that the Democrats are our adversary and the enemy are those guys in the Senate but you just have to deal with the Senate and have to get Congress working to get things done.
You also manage a lot of people. Everybody, basically, has their hopes and their aspirations and their ambitions in Congress whether it be the bill that they want to champion or the amendment they want made in order or the committee they want to get on. It all goes to the Speaker’s office and you have to do all that so you can basically manage people. If somebody does something wrong, you’re the enforcer. I regrettably had to ask four or five people to leave Congress and on a day’s notice. You have to discipline. You basically have to guard the institution and preserve the institution and run the institution and keep the institution’s prerogatives going.
And so, when I took over from John Boehner, we knew each other very well. I didn’t really need a policy brief from John but what he basically said was: “You’ve been a Committee Chair of two committees. You just think about getting your legislation passed and that’s what a Committee Chair thinks like. Now your job is to preserve this institution and most times you want to advance your party’s goals and you want to advance the legislation that your party cares about and you want to keep your majority but at all times, your job is to preserve this institution and you have got to start thinking like that.” It was literally the last thing he said to me as he left the office and then I had to get the office repainted to get the smell of smoke out.”
On serving as Speaker under Democrat and Republican Presidents:
“I think if I went from a conventional Democratic President to a conventional Republican President, it would have been much more similar, but it was just radically different, dramatically different. With President Obama, I ran against the guy in the last election so he felt like I definitely had reasons for not liking his program but we actually had a pretty good relationship. We had mutual respect for one another. We personally liked each other but I pretty much disagreed with him on about 80% of what he was trying to do and we had very big conversations about what those were. We would try to quickly figure out what is it that we could do and [identify] what we agree on and then we did those things.
I actually tried to do criminal justice reform with [President Obama] at the end but it was just too tight and trade was the other thing. He just started too late on trade but I really tried to get that through. There are a couple things that we really agreed on and that we worked very well together on. He just started the effort too late on trade and we couldn’t get over the finish line, but there were things that I passed with him like Puerto Rico legislation and the CURES Act, which is the cancer research legislation. And then, when we disagreed, we just sort of fought it out and then negotiated and got agreements like on omnibus appropriations. I got the ban on crude oil exports lifted and I had to give him something to get
that and it was fairly run of the mill adversarial….
With Trump, it was like four times the job because in his particular case, he was short-staffed and under-manned and then the staff that he brought on were so new and so green. He didn’t bring a lot of people who had been around or who had done these things, so we were the most experienced people in
government at the time….
We felt, and I felt, the deep obligation and this is one of the reasons why the day after the election, I felt obligated to do a press conference just showing that the government was still here and it had three branches. People didn’t expect the 2016 election to turn out the way it did, I personally didn’t either but we’re just going to work it out and we wanted to kind of calm the country down. And so, we sent some staffers over there…. and we tried to get them help right away to get the government up and running. And so, we were much more involved in day-to-day things with the Trump Administration on policy and planning and execution in addition to running the legislature.
We had a pathway to executing our agenda which we called “The Better Way” and I produced this giant Gantt chart that was almost the size of this table. I figured President Trump has been in the construction business and has been building skyscrapers so he knows what a Gantt chart is, which is a workflow chart with the entire agenda that we ran on. And so, we brought it over there at the White House…. and it’s the only time I think I had [President Trump’s] undivided attention for three hours. Knowing now what I know, I’m amazed…
And so, with President Trump, the exciting activity was the ability to get our agenda passed. We passed around 1,172 bills, which is double what we typically pass and half of them made it into law through the Senate… Obviously, the President drove me nuts sometimes with just the things he does, but nevertheless it was a remarkably productive time.”
On how America can positively respond to a globalized economy & why the Biden infrastructure plan would hurt economic competitiveness:
“It’s technology, it’s education, it’s lifelong learning and it’s getting an economy that continues to produce good, high-growth jobs in cutting-edge industries, which we’re working on [in Janesville] and we’re doing in Wisconsin. We have got to stay ahead of it. Globalization is here: It’s bringing like a billion people out of poverty and done right, we can still have the best jobs [in America]. We can still have high school educated people work in manufacturing and get great jobs. And frankly, we were starting to see those policies that were put in place in 2018 and 2019, before the pandemic hit. take hold. I think we had some really good policies put in place. More are needed, but our agenda [under President Trump] was working….
We fixed job training a lot. We consolidated and streamlined job training, giving it back to the states so they could focus on their economic development strategies and allowed states to build those programs out. I think there needs to be another wave of job training reforms. I think there are tech-enabled reforms that can occur and make our economy work much better.
[I think you] shouldn’t pass the Biden infrastructure tax. It’s horrendous and what I mean is that President Biden will take us back to being the worst tax code in the industrialized world for businesses. We were the worst and in 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made us one of the best and this will literally, technically, economically, and statutorily bring us back to the worst and that will just drive more inversions. It will drive businesses overseas and it will slow down wages and productivity. So, I think you need to make sure you don’t do that.
I think there are some things that you need to make permanent in the tax code, like full expensing for plant and equipment that will increase productivity, increase wages, and increase living standards. We were beginning to see that for the Janesville-type person and for the blue-collar industrial worker, they were starting to see true living standard increases, where wages increase faster than inflation. And then we got hit with the pandemic so I think we had a good plan in place and I would go back and accelerate that.”
On the state of the Republican Party:
“The state of the party is good. We had a great election down-ballot in 2020 but we lost the presidency. I mean, we also should’ve won the Georgia [Senate elections]. We didn’t. I think Trump blew that one for us, but we did far better in the Senate than we expected. We did really well in the House, which we didn’t expect. I think we’ll get the House majority in 2022 partly because of history and partly because of Biden’s overreach and the progressive agenda, so I think we’ll get the majority because of that. On paper, we’re strong but philosophically, I am greatly worried. We cannot be a cult of personality or a party built around any personality — let alone Donald Trump, but any personality. We’ve got to be an ideas party and the problem is we’re sort of a reactionary party right now.We’re basically playing cultural war, reactionary politics which is kind of like cotton candy and it gives people the sugar high for the moment. It gives immediate satisfaction but it’s not a coherent vision and agenda. It’s not based on a moral code or a coherent philosophy. Now having said that, there are lots of Republicans who have that coherent philosophy but it’s not what we’re really identified with as a party and we’re just going to have to go through some growing pains to get there.”