Boehner Did More for Fiscal Conservatism Than Ryan

The former House speaker was reviled by conservatives, but he did more to control spending.

House speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama attend the annual Friends of Ireland Luncheon in Washington DC, March 17, 2011
House speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama attend the annual Friends of Ireland Luncheon in Washington DC, March 17, 2011 (Speaker of the House)

What a disappointment Paul Ryan has turned out to be.

The Republican congressman from Wisconsin, who leaves the speakership of the House of Representatives — and politics — early next year, was hailed as the last best hope of fiscal conservatism in the United States, but in fact his much-reviled predecessor, John Boehner, did more to shrink the deficit.

Reckless tax cuts

The legacy of Ryan’s three-year speakership will be massive tax cuts that disproportionately favor corporations and the rich. The deficit is up 17 percent (PDF) this year, reversing a downward trend that started in 2009. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the tax cuts will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.

Ryan has for years maintained that the drivers of the deficit are entitlements: Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. That’s right. Those three programs account for 70 percent of federal spending.

So why, in three years, has he not introduced a single entitlement reform?

Why, instead of cutting spending or raising taxes to make the programs more affordable, has he pushed through tax cuts at a time of economic expansion no less?

Boehner did better

Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner, made himself an enemy of the right by doing deals with a Democratic president, Barack Obama.

But those deals did more to control spending than anything Ryan has accomplished under a Republican president.

  • Boehner leveraged the raising of the debt ceiling in 2011 to negotiate more than $900 billion in spending cuts over ten years.
  • An additional $1.1 trillion in spending was cut for the same period two years later, when a congressional supercommittee failed to reach a compromise on fiscal reform.
  • After a government shutdown in 2013, and facing another debt-ceiling crisis, Boehner wisely convinced Republicans to stop trying to defund Obamacare and pass budgets for 2013 and 2014 instead that further reduced spending.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that ten-year deficit projections had shrunk $5 trillion during Boehner’s speakership.

The bulk of those savings, $3.2 trillion, came from spending cuts.

Who cares about the deficit?

And still Boehner was hounded from office, supposedly because he didn’t cut spending enough or agreed to raise taxes — but really because he was willing to negotiate and compromise with Democrats.

Now the far right have what they said they needed: a sympathetic speaker, Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a Republican president. But far from reducing the deficit, they are adding to it.