By: AIF Staff
Janesville, WI – This Fall, former Speaker of the House and current President of the American Idea Foundation Paul Ryan spoke with students and leaders of Franciscan University of Steubenville about how faith has influenced his life and his approach to public service.
In a virtual discussion led by Fr. Dave Pivonka (TOR), the President of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Speaker Ryan shared his thoughts on how religious principles can shape policymakers’ outlooks, how tax and spending policies will impact the poor, and how religious values like subsidiarity and solidarity continue to drive his efforts today. Further, Ryan touched on the ongoing work of the American Idea Foundation to link community leaders with legislators and identify evidence-based policies and programs capable of lifting Americans out of poverty.
Excerpts of Speaker Ryan’s conversation with Franciscan University of Steubenville’s President, Father Dave Pivonka (TOR) follow. Video of the virtual discussion is accessible here.
On the intersection between public life and Catholic social teaching
“We have a Compendium (of the Social Doctrine of the Church) that’s pretty handy. If you look at my Compendium, it has got lots of dog ears in it. The quick of it is…. you have prudential judgment and you exercise that prudential judgment within your principles but you’ve got to know where those parameters lay…
“The debate over the Child Tax Credit right now is a perfect example of this debate. The current majority in the House, the Democrats, are trying to move this reconciliation bill. It’s a bill that I really have a big problem with.
“We won’t get into all of it, but they want to massively expand the Child Tax Credit. This, in and of itself, sounds great. It sounds wonderful because we want to help and as a Catholic, you think: “Yes, I want more assistance to families having children because we want more of that.” Yet they’re designing this in such a way that is contrary to all of the evidence – and we have compiled a lot of evidence through Catholic Charities…
“We know that a work requirement with aid and having a person help support an individual and family through a case management system is the best way to help a person get out of poverty. What this new reconciliation proposal says is we are going to sever the ties between families and work and between families and case managers, a person who is helping them navigate through poverty, and just send them a check in the mail from the IRS.
“[Under the reconciliation bill,] we are now estranging our families from the existing assistance of our safety net, which involves a human being helping individuals get out of poverty and includes incentives that have proven to work extremely well. Work is a way out of poverty… and this is especially true for parents who want to set examples for their kids and put themselves on a pathway out of poverty. This new reconciliation proposal is basically saying that the IRS will put money on your debit card or send you a check in the mail. It is cash assistance untethered to anything else.”
Addressing the long-term debt will avert a debt crisis & help the poor
“The last president made it really clear to me that he did not want to engage in fiscal discipline. He did not want to engage in it at all, at least in his first term…. There was no appetite for it because a lot of the things that you need to do are not necessarily popular, but they’re necessary. It’s not a partisan thing. It’s just a math and economics thing…
“I passed a budget about eight years running to balance the budget to pay off the debt and there are just some necessary ways of doing that. You can’t just cut defense and balance the budget, for example.
“And my point is, overspending means the government is making promises to the public that it can’t keep. When the money runs out — meaning when we lose our reserve currency status and our interest rates go up, which would happen eventually because of our profligate spending, then the social safety net itself collapses and goes bankrupt. The social chaos that would occur when the social contract of health and retirement security and safety net for the poor becomes uncomfortable, that would be a real crisis.
“And so, the prudential thing to do is know that [a debt crisis] is coming because it is and know that you cannot keep borrowing like we are, because we can’t. We know that if you put in really important reforms now that we can maintain these programs’ missions, and do them in such a way that can reduce the debt load so that you can keep the promises [of these programs] going in the future.
“It’s a smart thing to do but it involves structural changes to these programs which disrupts the status quo. Those who like the status quo don’t like that, but a stitch in time saves nine. If you put important, programmatic reforms in place now that do not affect those in or near retirement, I would argue that you would make the safety net even better, but it would work differently, and you can avoid a debt crisis.”
Ongoing efforts to protect religious liberty:
“I fought when I was Speaker with then-President Obama on this. I talked to him about this for hours and unfortunately, we never got a good resolution but it got to the point where I invited the Little Sisters of the Poor to the State of the Union address to sit in my box and use them as my best lobbyists to try to advocate for a change.
“We got the regulatory change by the time we got onto this issue with President Trump. We had religious liberty protections. Secretary Alex Azar at HHS was extremely helpful in this as well. The problem with doing this on a regulatory basis through Executive Orders is the order only lasts as long as the President lasts. That’s the problem.
“In the House, we passed legislation to protect religious liberty when I was there but you need 60 votes in the Senate. This is something that can be filibustered and it always will be. We’ve never had the votes to get these protections into law. We had the votes out of the House but we could never get out of the Senate.
“There are two things going forward: Continue to press the Biden Administration to keep these regulations that Trump put in place. I mean, President Biden is a Catholic. I would like to think that I know him well… and I would like to think there’s a more willing audience than say in the Obama administration. So, I think that’s priority one. Priority two, particularly for students in places like Franciscan University, is to educate their lawmakers.
Overcoming ideological impasses with evidence to better assist the poor:
“I think the social safety net has to be redesigned and rebuilt in the 21st century so that it’s sustainable and so it’s working based on outcomes. I think this current reconciliation bill is going to roll back about 30 years of progress.
“What I mean when I say that is this. We’ve learned a lot through data and evidence about what works and what doesn’t work since LBJ declared the War on Poverty. It was extremely well-intended, but it was a 60-year “war” with over $60 trillion spent. We’re spending about a trillion dollars annually on 100 different programs just through the federal government and only 1% of those programs are measured based on evidence and outcomes.
“Currently, success is basically measured on effort and inputs. How much money are we spending, how many programs are we creating, how many people are in these programs? We should be measuring it based on are we getting people out of poverty? Is it working? What is the outcome? And invariably, when you dig into this issue, you will find evidence is a really important component and there are a lot of people in government that want to forget that.
“You find that incentives matter, that work works, that local control and human interaction are really, really important ingredients….
“We have a new law that I wrote called the Evidence Act, which releases all this federal government data so that academic institutions — and Notre Dame does a lot of this and you can do this too through your Economics Department – can study this data and find out what actually works.
“We can leapfrog what I would argue is an ideological stalemate and just go to data and evidence and invariably the principles that we believe in – which is the full spectrum of Catholic social teaching in my judgment – will be validated by this evidence. And so, I’d rather go have a data and evidence debate than continue to face an ideological impasse.
“I think there’s a real future for fixing the safety net and fixing how we service the poor. I think we have breakout moments ahead of us so long as we don’t lapse back into what are some really bad policy decisions…. But going from ideology, where we just have impasses on, to data and evidence, which by the way, we have learned really buttresses our principles, is a good idea. And there’s a moral high ground to be had and to maintain and I think we should go get it.”
Strengthen civil society to combat moral relativism, polarization, and digitization:
“We have a fire burning across the country in terms of moral relativism and its off-shoots, like identity politics, polarization, and the rest. It’s really challenging. The best answer I have is two things:
“Number one, we have got to do everything we can to revitalize civil society, which are those mediating institutions between ourselves and our government. It’s the space where we live our lives, where we can drink and breathe life into institutions, like churches and civic groups, and where we understand right and wrong and moral absolutes.
“Number two, people of faith have got to get out into the community. They have to get out and rebuild these institutions. I am a big supporter of home-schooling, particularly with COVID-19 and all the rest, but what you have are the very people in our communities that we need to be out in the communities, winning arguments, being on school boards, and going to the PTA, they are just walling themselves off and forming pods with their other like-minded people. It’s totally understandable…. but it’s really important that people of faith engage in the broader community.”
Founded after World War II, Franciscan University of Steubenville’s initial student body consisted mostly of returning veterans. Since then, the Catholic university has since grown to over 3,000 students, many of whom are seeking to deepen their understanding of theology and religion. The discussion featuring Speaker Ryan was part of the American Idea Foundation’s ongoing efforts to introduce the concept of evidence-based policymaking to different audiences.
Since leaving Congress in 2019, Speaker Ryan has prioritized speaking with college students and younger Americans about becoming active members of civil society, giving back in ways that improve their communities, and engaging in political debates with evidence and facts, rather than partisan sound bites.