House Speaker Ryan Says Goodbye to Shifting Congress

(CN) – Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, gave his farewell address Wednesday at the Library of Congress, touching on a mixed record of accomplishments as his party prepares to give up control of the House to Democrats next month.

Ryan, 48, spoke on the accomplishments of this Congress in broad strokes at times, saying, “Three years ago, when we last gathered in this hall, we began a great journey. To set our nation on a better path. To move our economy from stagnation to growth. To restore our military might.”

In this Nov. 29, 2018, file photo, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin listens during a reception to unveil his portrait on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“And we have kept our promises,” he said.

Ryan, who was first elected to represent Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District in 1998, was tapped to campaign as vice president for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2012.

He also served on the House Budget Committee and the Committee on Ways and Means before taking up the speakership. Ryan has always been viewed as a policy wonk who specialized in spending and budgets.

Some of the marquee proposals that Ryan became known for early in his career were his support for privatizing Social Security and Medicare, block granting Medicaid benefits back to the states, and a wide variety of tax cuts.

Along with his Republican colleagues in Congress, Ryan has also tried repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. He made a name for himself as a cerebral budget hawk who was once the young face of the GOP.

In speaking to his core pursuit of entitlement reform, one of three policy issues highlighted during his speech, Ryan admitted that Congress fell short during his tenure.

“I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality and I consider this our greatest unfinished business,” he said.

Another pillar of Ryan’s speech was the challenge to solve America’s poverty crisis. Solving this problem, Ryan said, would require “a great rethinking of how we help the most vulnerable among us.”

One of the only times that Ryan mentioned one of his main successes, the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, was in reference to poverty. Ryan pointed to what he called the free market-driven solutions in that bill, including the creation of “opportunity zones” in economically distressed communities.

He referred to the bill as “the first major tax overhaul in 31 years,” which he said took the U.S. from having one of the worst tax codes in the industrialized world to one of the best.

Another 2017 bill, the American Healthcare Act, ranks among Ryan’s failures. It was an attempt at implementing the privatized, block-granting overhauls to the health care system Ryan championed, but fell short of passing the Senate by one vote after it passed the House.

As for immigration reform, the third bullet point of Ryan’s farewell address, Ryan largely admitted that there is a lot of work to do, but remained optimistic that “the right mix of policy solutions is there.”

Ryan’s comments on immigration also took note of the current deadlock the federal government is facing, with a shutdown looming as President Donald Trump and members of Congress try to resolve disagreements on funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border.

“No matter what the outcome is in the coming days,” Ryan said, “the larger problem will remain. The system will still be in need of serious reform.”

Speaker Ryan and President Trump had a complicated relationship that tended toward a baseline tolerance peppered with occasional friction.

During Trump’s 2016 campaign, Ryan found himself drawn into the then-candidate’s orbit of controversies, having to publicly endorse him before backing off more than once.

The most glaring example came with the bombshell revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape and subsequent media firestorm, after which Ryan disinvited Trump from one of his rallies. That led to Trump calling Ryan “disloyal.”

But overall, Ryan was glowing and misty-eyed in his farewell speech, looking back fondly on his tenure in Congress and the accomplishments he oversaw.

Referring to the concluding session of Congress, Ryan called it the most productive ever, passing “1,175 bills, over half of them with bipartisan support.”

Ryan then joked that half of them are still stuck in the Senate, but noted that the other half became law.

Toward the end of his speech, Ryan took pains to address the torrential negativity of today’s political climate.

“The state of politics is another question, and frankly one I don’t have an answer for,” Ryan lamented.

He noted that, too often, “being against someone has more currency than being for something,” and regrettably spoke of how “outrage has become a brand” in a way that “discourages good people from public service.”

Ryan suggested that “it could be our unraveling,” but finished by emphasizing that “it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Our problems are solvable if our politics will allow it,” he said.

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