By: AIF Staff
Washington, DC – Last month, former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen and former Republican Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee recently launched a podcast called, You Might be Right, featuring guests from the left and the right presenting their views on major issues facing the nation. The Tennessee Governors, who launched the podcast in conjunction with the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, are focused on finding common ground, listening to various perspectives, and arriving at potential policy solutions through conversations with experts.
Paul Ryan, the President of the American Idea Foundation and former Speaker of the House, was one of the first guests on You Might be Right, joining Governors Haslam and Bredesen for a discussion on our nation’s fiscal policy.
During the interview, Ryan detailed his experience advancing proposals to balance the budget and strengthen programs like Medicare and Social Security so they are on sounder financial footing. He also talked about why our nation needs to solve the debt crisis in order to maintain a social safety net for current and future generations of Americans.
Listen to the full podcast interview with Speaker Ryan here.Excerpts of Ryan’s responses follow.
Ryan on why the national debt should be everyone’s concern
“It matters because in 10 to 20 years, around mid-century, we will not be able to afford our social contract. If we think that America is polarized today, just wait for if and when we lose our reserve currency status.
We can’t afford to bond finance our social contract, which is health and retirement security for all Americans, a safety net for the poor, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. We won’t be able to afford those things. [In a debt crisis,] we would have to cut those benefits in real time for real people who have organized their lives around them and who are living on these programs – just think of the chaos if that were to occur. It will make today’s polarization look like nothing.
My mother-in-law passed away 10 years ago, but she used to always say this thing that stuck with me: “A stitch in time saves nine.” This is one of those issues where if you get it right early enough, you can dodge a debt crisis. You could dodge that bullet and our country can keep its promises to its people, which is health and retirement security and the social safety net.
[On our current course,] we won’t be able to keep that promise. We have so many unfunded liabilities and the government is making promises to what I call the “three generation window” of retirees, workers, and their kids and these are promises that can’t be kept. So, we need to reform these programs so that we can make sure we keep these promises. It’s that simple in my mind.”
Ryan on reforming entitlements by keeping promises to current retirees & making prospective reforms for future seniors
“The question is: Can you put in place reforms today that apply to people before they retire with important changes to these programs so they still meet their missions quite well?…
Like I said, I passed these bills in the House as budget resolutions, but we never got close to getting them actually into law, which involves the Senate and the President of course. But the way I went about [generating support for these bills] is by educating Members of Congress and having Members of Congress go to their constituents and have town-hall meetings to talk about this problem, to talk about why it’s bad, and why fixing it early is the way to go. And [talk about] that these reforms we are proposing, they make the programs stronger, better off, and don’t affect people in or near retirement.
This is kind of the key political promise: Not affecting people in or near retirement, because they’re just about to retire. They have made these promises and they banked on [receiving the benefits] sooner or later. We’re not going to be able to make good on those promises [for much longer] and that’s why I worry we don’t have a whole lot of time for where we can still say something that makes this politically viable, which is it’s not going to impact current retirees. It’s going to be prospective. We’re getting pretty close to the time where we may not be able to do that and then it gets really difficult.”
Ryan on how health and retirement security programs can be improved
“We can make these programs actually work better and pass these reforms so they’re phased in over time, so they’re gradual and expected, so they’re not too disruptive to people in their lives. There’s one thing – and this is where I’m going to sound like a Republican ideologue, but if we do this, it will be because Congress and the country accepts the private sector being involved in delivering these services, so they are publicly-financed, publicly-managed but with a private sector delivery system.
And honestly, it’s not really Social Security. In this case, it’s Medicare. It’s the healthcare entitlements. It’s the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and Medicare. That’s the game in town. That’s a debt crisis.
And so, we need a patient-centered health care system with private sector delivery systems that have value-based purchasing, true transparency on value, and an economic incentive for patients to act on that value. This helps tame health inflation and bend the cost curve.
And frankly, Medicare is really the big enchilada. I think the only way to go is a premium support system, and a premium support system like the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program. It’s sort of a defined contribution to a person for their premiums in a guaranteed-issue Medicare system. It provides more for the poor and the sick, less for the healthy and the wealthy. You means-test it, you risk-adjust it, but it’s fixed. According to the Congressional Budget Office, according to all the best budget projections, it’s really the only way to save Medicare from bankruptcy without resorting to rationing and price controls.”
Ryan on how policymakers can solve the debt problem
“This was always my theory: You have to have people run for office talking about this issue, educating people about this issue, and then offering a solution to this issue. So if they win that office, they then have earned the moral authority or the right to put these reforms into place.
When I became Speaker in 2015, I wasn’t looking for the job. Actually, I was kind of drafted into it. One of my conditions for doing this job, and it’s a great way to go into a job, was I said we had to have a plan and an agenda that we run on. We called it The Better Way and we put it out there. We had health and entitlement reform plans for all these programs. We had tax reforms…. House Republicans ran on it in 2016…. Somebody needs to run on doing this, then get elected and then go do it.”
Ryan on how fixing the debt will unlock the next great American century
“All roads lead back to getting our debt under control and the way you get your debt under control is you solve our entitlement programs. If you solve these problems, you can have health and retirement security in America for all Americans. You can have a great vibrant economy, a social safety net for the poor, and get this thing under control. We can do it so these problems can be fixed with prospective policies but we don’t have the politics or anywhere close to it today to get there. That is the problem we have right now.”
Ryan on his evolution on criminal justice reform
“Criminal justice reform is probably the one issue that came to my mind the best… I came to Congress in 1998 and it was Clinton and Biden, along with Republicans, saying we needed to be tough on crime. We needed three strikes and you’re out and mandatory minimum sentences.
We were really tough on crime and we passed all these laws to crack down on crime and we overshot. I didn’t really know that until 2014-2015 when I started doing all these listening sessions around the county and I learned that we were putting people away in jail for a long time and it was making these communities worse off. It was making people worse off and there were better alternatives like drug courts and the rest.
So, I learned that I was wrong in how I thought about criminal justice and it was over a course of about a two-year period of my researching this and my learning from governors, frankly, that sort of helped me learn this lesson and then change my position on it and we ended up passing criminal justice reform in 2017 and 2018.”