Washington — While citing some areas of common ground, Democrats reacted with general skepticism to the anti-poverty agenda unveiled by House budget chairman Paul Ryan of Janesville on Thursday.
One big reason: their deep disdain for the House budgets Ryan has crafted in recent years, which they view as punitive toward the poor.
“It’s a case of total cognitive dissonance between the (Ryan) proposals today and the Republican budgets” that Ryan has shepherded through the House, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on Ryan’s budget committee.
The Ryan budgets offered sharp cuts in social spending. But the proposals on poverty-fighting offered by Ryan on Thursday are squarely focused on reforming programs for the poor — not reducing the actual amount of money the government spends on the poor.
In a conference call with reporters, Van Hollen described that as “policy and political schizophrenia on steroids.”
Ryan says he wants to separate the discussion about fighting poverty from the regular clashes over the budget.
His poverty plan, full of policy detail and scholarly citations, is the culmination of more than a year of hearings and personal visits to poor urban areas around the country.
It features a few pillars that have Democratic support: expanding the subsidy to the working poor known as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and changing the federal mandatory sentencing laws that require judges to give lengthy sentences to many nonviolent drug offenders, driving up the prison population.
Democrats said they welcomed Ryan’s support on both fronts, and welcomed a dialogue on poverty.
Van Hollen also praised the emphasis in Ryan’s plan on “results-oriented” reform, letting data and expert evaluations guide government decisions about what works and doesn’t work.
But he and other Democrats argued that the “compassionate conservative” rhetoric in Ryan’s anti-poverty plan is at odds with the policies he and other House Republicans have been voting for.
“Watch what they do, not what they say,” Van Hollen said.
Asked about the proposal at a news conference Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he hadn’t seen the recommendations but was “anxious to hear what he’s got to say.”
“I think having an honest discussion about the problems, the problem of poverty is critically important to the future of our country,” Boehner said. “I think everyone in this capital wants to help those who are in need, but there’s probably a debate about what that help looks like.”
Democrats deeply wary
Democrats are widely opposed to at least one major element of the Ryan plan: consolidating food stamps, child care and several other social programs into a single grant to give states and localities the flexibility to tailor government assistance to individual families.
Ryan describes this as a pilot program for a limited number of states that would be heavily monitored and tested before it was renewed or replicated elsewhere. The Republican congressman and 2012 vice presidential candidate says it could not be used by states as a pretext for cutting overall support for the poor.
But Democrats are deeply wary, saying that consolidating programs typically has been used as a strategy for cutting them.
“‘Block grant’ is proxy for the chopping block,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) said in an interview Thursday. “It all leads to cuts to programs that benefit poor people.”
Like some other Democrats, Moore had both positive and negative things to say about Ryan’s growing voice within the GOP on poverty issues.
She welcomed Ryan’s support for sentencing reform and expanded tax credits for the working poor, adding: “I genuinely like Paul Ryan… I think it is possible to reason some things with him and have some conversations with him that traditionally you cannot have (with) someone who has a total ideology which dismisses the plight of the poor.”
But she deplored the Ryan budgets and what she said was Ryan’s “tenacity” in rolling back entitlement programs.
Speech to conservatives
Appearing at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday morning, Ryan described his plan not as a finished product but as the start of a “conversation about how we can repair the safety net.”
“I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does,” he said. “We need to stop listening to the loudest voices in the room and start listening to the smartest voices in the room.”
One of the panelists at the Ryan event Thursday, former GOP congressional aide Ron Haskins, said the Ryan plan offered the potential for bipartisan agreement on a variety of issues.
“As an opening bid, it’s really centrist,” Haskins said in an interview.
But he also said it faces serious political challenges on both sides of the aisle.
Haskins, a policy expert at the Brookings Institution, noted the Democratic opposition to “block-granting” programs. And, he said, some Republicans oppose expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which results in fewer people paying income taxes.
Haskins said that while Ryan and some others in the GOP are trying to get the party to truly focus on poverty as an issue, “there is very little evidence that they’ve convinced the rest of the Republican Party” to do that.