Paul Ryan’s decision to retire from Congress is a tough hit for House Republicans. His calm, steadfast leadership has been a steadying hand over a couple of tumultuous years. Perhaps his biggest selling point to his colleagues to take the difficult votes was that he, himself, made the difficult decision to move into the big office. Like Cincinnatus, he didn’t want the job. And that’s one of the things people liked most about his ascension to the office of Speaker.
Mr. Ryan had already gotten his dream jobs in Congress — chairman of the House Budget Committee and (for a brief while) the Ways and Means Committee. In 2013, had Congress fully enacted his budget proposition, “The Path to Prosperity: Restoring America’s Promise,” he probably could have resigned then. Paul Ryan is universally recognized by reasonable people on both sides of the aisle as the greatest budget and tax policy expert in Congress.
History will inevitably focus on Mr. Ryan’s time as Speaker. He will be commended for boosting the county’s long-term economic prospects through the first comprehensive tax reform in more than 35 years. Fair historians will also applaud him for restoring America’s defense, opening up energy reserves and repealing the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
Even though the rest of his term will pass too quickly, there’s still time for Mr. Ryan to add to his legacy in a way that will cement his contributions to Congress for years to come. That’s by pushing for internal reforms to the budget process that will streamline it and make it more effective. He supported the formation of the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform and, as the legislative language indicates, understood that giving it too big a mission would doom it to failure. Instead of being charged with ending deficit spending and bloated budgets, the Joint Select Committee will make recommendations for changing how budgets are made. This focus on procedural outcomes instead of fiscal ones is an important distinction from the 2011 Supercommittee. It also means the Joint Select Committee has a strong shot at success.
Congress is essentially already doing biennial budgeting so why not take the step to codify that into its rules? A two-year budget cycle will give lawmakers more time to do their work. Switching the start of the fiscal year from October to January would lessen the degree to which campaign calculations affect these important policy decisions since Congress rarely achieves anything between the end of August recess through early November in election years.
Mr. Ryan’s boldest move would be to back the reinstatement of earmarks as part of other budget reforms. The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse, and although earmarks were seriously abused in the past, a budget wonk would be able to guide the reintroduction of congressionally directed spending in a way that is transparent and meaningful to constituents.
Too many members feel disconnected from the legislative process. Being able to secure earmarks would give more lawmakers a voice in the process and give them a vested interest in fighting for passage of bills instead of watching them get blown up by a vocal minority. It would also be a good way to jump start the long-neglected authorization process.
Over that last hundred years, a joint committee has been the vehicle through which Congress instituted major internal reforms. It has helped modernize both chambers. A few meaningful budget reforms could start the earnest work of eliminating gridlock, pushing partisanship off to the side, and get Congress working again. That’s the kind of thing that lays the foundation for a lasting legacy.
• Mark Strand is president of the Congressional Institute.
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