Paul Ryan

Address to Congressional Interns on the State of American Politics

delivered 23 March 2016

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Thank you for your indulgence and thank you for your patience. We have votes on the floor right now.

I want to thank Elise Stefanik. She is inspiring. I also want to thank all of you for coming here today. I want to thank Kevin Brady, my friend, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee for hosting us here today. I had the privilege of joining this committee in my second term. My seat was right behind these flags.

And itís a perfect setting for what I want to talk with you today about. Because it is here, in this committee, that we debate some of the biggest, most consequential issues. We debate our tax code, health care, trade, entitlement reform, welfare reform. This is a big deal to be on this committee. People will strive to get on this committee. And understanding the privilege and the responsibility that came along with it, we took our jobs very seriously here on this committee. And we always held ourselves to a higher standard of decorum. We treated each other with respect. We disagreed often fiercely so, but we disagreed without being disagreeable. I speak of this in the past tense only because I no longer serve here in the Ways and Means Committee. But it almost sounds like Iím, you know, speaking of a different time, doesnít it? It sounds like a scene unfamiliar to many in your generation.

Looking around at whatís taking place in politics today, it is so easy to get disheartened. How many of you find yourself just shaking your head at what you see from both sides of the aisle these days? You know, I see myself in each and every one of you. I came here as a curious college intern trying to get a sense of everything. Trying to figure out, you know, where to take my own life. I would always ask older, more experienced people, what do you know that you wished you knew when you were my age? Well, here is my answer to that question. Here is what I know now that I want you to know - that you cannot maybe see yourself today. And this is not just a lesson for young minds, but a message for all Americans. Our political discourse; both the kind that we see on TV and the kind that we experience among each other; it did not use to be this bad and it does not have to be this way. Now, a little skepticism that is really healthy. But when people distrust politics, they come to distrust institutions. They lose faith in government. They lose faith in our future. We can acknowledge this. But we donít have to accept this. And we canít enable it either.

My dad used to always say, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution, one or the other. So I have made up my mission as Speaker, to raise our gaze and aim for a brighter horizon. Instead of talking about what politics is today, I want to talk with you about what politics can be. I want to talk about what our country can be, about what our founders envisioned it would be. America, America is the only nation founded on an idea, not on an identity. That idea is a beautiful idea. The condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life. Our rights are natural. They are God given, they are not coming from government.

Now while it was a beautiful idea, it had never been tried before. Early on, our founders fought to establish a suitable order. They decided that we would not maintain this idea by force. In the first Federalist paper, Alexander Hamilton, he wrote that in politics it is absurd to aim at making converts by fire or sword. Instead, we would govern ourselves with the peopleís consent. Again, there was no manual for how to do this. Thatís why we call this whole thing the American experiment. It is still the American experiment. So they made each other and they made those who came after take an oath to uphold the Constitution. Every generation since has inherited this responsibility. Leaders with different visions and ideas have come and gone; parties have risen and fallen; majorities in White Houses won and lost. But the way we govern endures: through debate, not disorder. This is the one thing about our country and this one of the most important things about our country that makes it the greatest on earth.

I must admit, I didnít always find this idea so exciting when I was young. As I said, I came to Washington unsure of what I was going to do with my life. And then I ended up working for a guy named Jack Kemp. You may have heard of him. He went on to represent the people from Western New York but he was quarterback for the Buffalo Bills, one of the great quarterbacks of his time. And then he represented the Buffalo area in Congress in the 1970s and the 1980s. He served in the Cabinet under President H.W. Bush. And, like me, he was one of our partyís nominees for vice president.

I first met Jack Kemp exactly where youíd expect, at Tortilla Coast. It was true I was waiting tables. You know, like you I had student loans, coming out of school, I had a few jobs, and I was a waiter, and I waited on Jack Kemp. I didnít bother him that day, but I told a friend one day I would love to have the chance of working for that man. And as luck would have it, such an opening came up. The thing about Jack was that he was an optimist all the way. He refused to accept that any part of America or the American Idea could ever be written off. Here was a conservative willing Ė no, no; here was a conservative eager to go to Americaís bleakest communities and talk about how free enterprise would lift people out of poverty. These were the areas of the country that had not seen a Republican leader in years, if ever.

I had the chance to accompany Jack on some of these visits. I saw how people took to him. I saw how he listened, how he took new lessons from each experience. He found common cause with poverty fighters on the ground. Instead of a sense of drift, I at that time began to feel a sense of purpose. Jack inspired me to develop my professional life to public policy. It became a vocation to me.

Ideas passionately promoted, put to the test - thatís what politics can be. Thatís what our country can be. It can be a confident America, where we have a basic faith in politics and our leaders. It sounds like a long distance from where we are right know, doesnít it? It can be a place where we have earned that faith. All of us as leaders can hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity and decency. Instead of playing to your anxieties, we can appeal to your aspirations. Instead of playing the identity politics of our base versus their base, we unite people around ideas and principles. And instead of being timid, we go bold.

We donít just resort to scaring you, we dare to inspire you. We donít just oppose someone or something we propose a clear and compelling alternative. And we donít just win your support, we win the argument. We win your enthusiasm. We win hearts and minds. We win a mandate to do what needs to be done to protect the American Idea.

In a confident America, we also have a basic faith in one another. Thatís one of the most important lessons Iíd love to confer to you. We question each otherís ideas vigorously but we donít question each otherís motives. If someone has a bad idea, we donít think that theyíre a bad person. We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas, they are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, they are our coworkers, they are our fellow citizens. Sometimes theyíre our friends. Sometimes theyíre even our own flesh and blood, right? We all know someone we love who disagrees with us politically, or votes differently. But in a confident America, we are not afraid to disagree with each other. We donít lock ourselves in an echo chamber. We donít go into the echo chamber where we just tell us what we want to hear. Where we take comfort in the dogmas and opinions that we already hold. We donít shut down on people and we donít shut people down. If someone has a bad idea, well, why donít we tell them why our idea is better? We donít insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while weíre at it, we test our own assumptions too.

You know, Iím certainly not going to stand here and tell you that I have always met this standard myself. There was a time that I would talk about a difference between makers and takers in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits. But as I spent more time listening, really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized something. I realized that I was wrong. Takers wasnít how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap trying to take care of her own family. Most people donít want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldnít castigate a large group of Americans just to make a point. So I stopped talking about it that way and I stopped thinking about it that way. But I didnít come out and say this to be politically correct. I say this because I was just wrong. And of course, there are still going to be times where I and you and we say things that we wish we hadnít. There are still going to be times when I follow the wrong impulse. Governing ourselves was never meant to be easy. This has always been a tough business. And when passions flair, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldnít accept ugliness as the norm. We should demand better from ourselves. We should demand better from one another. We should think about the great leaders that have bestowed upon us the opportunity to live the American Idea. We should honor their legacy. We should build that more confident America.

This, as much as anything, is what makes me an optimist: in knowing that ideas can inspire a country and help people. Long before I worked for him, Jack Kemp had a tax plan that he was incredibly passionate about. As I remember this about Jack Kemp, he wasnít even on the Ways and Means Committee, the committee here that writes all our tax lose. Republicans were deep in the minority back then. So the odds of it going anywhere seemed remotely low, awfully low. But he was like a dog with a bone. He believed passionately in his ideas even though the odds are stacked against him. He took that plan to any audience that he could get in front of. He pushed it so hard that he eventually inspired our partyís nominee for president, Ronald Reagan, to adopt it as his own. And in 1981 the Kemp-Roth Tax Cut was signed into law, lowering tax rates, spurring growth, and putting millions of American family back to work.

All it took was someone to put policy on paper, someone willing to put an idea on paper and to promote it passionately. This is the basic concept behind the policy agenda that House Republicans are building right now. As leaders, we have an obligation to put our best ideas forward no matter the consequences. With so much at stake, the American people deserve a very clear picture of what we believe, of what we would do. Personalities come and go, but principles endure, ideas endure, ready to inspire generations yet to be born.

Thatís the thing about politics. We think of politics in terms of this vote or this election. But it can be so much more than that. Politics can be a battle of ideas, not a battle of insults. It can be about solutions. It can be about making a difference. It can be about always striving to do better. Thatís what it can be and thatís what it should be. This is the system our founders envisioned. Itís messy. Itís complicated. It is infuriating at times but itís a beautiful thing too.

Thank you all for being here today. I really appreciate it.


 Speaker Ryan: For the young folks in the audience Iíd love to answer some of your questions, go ahead. I can repeat it if you canít get it out.

Question: Thanks. First of all, Iíd like to say just thank you for having this. This has been an awesome thing. Iím already geeking out with the fact that Iím about to ask the Speaker of the House a question, so itís pretty cool.

Speaker Ryan: So go for it.

Question: But anyway, so you talked about introducing civility in politics. Who is that more incumbent upon, is that more incumbent upon the American peopleÖ

Speaker Ryan: Every one of us.

Question: Öinstitutions, the candidates? I mean, who is that more incumbent upon?

Speaker Ryan:  Yeah, so look. The founders created this new American idea. Itís an amazing thing. Unprecedented, never been done before. Guess what? Itís our job to preserve it. And so sometimes today we see a politics that is degrading, a politics thatís going to the base. The basis of our emotions, of what this unifies us, now it unifies us. So, hereís our job. As leaders, we need to raise our gaze and we need to raise our game and talk about ideas, try to unite us, not prey on peopleís separations or their identities. Your job as a young person finding your way in life is not impugned on other personís motives. Itís to listen but itís also to try and persuade. Itís to accept that people think differently. They may have different ideas, theyíre not bad people, and thatís unfortunately what is occurring all too often in our society today. Itís your job, and each and every one of our jobs as citizens is to respect other peopleís opinions, be passionate about our principals and ideas and go and advocate for them without impugning on other personís motives. Our jobs as leaders is to offer a clear and compelling agenda, to talk about ideas and not to trade insults.

Question: My name is Justin. Iím from Congressman Greg Waldenís office. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. You talked about confidence and optimism. Iím not going to ask you to name names, orÖ

Speaker Ryan: Iím not going to.

Question: Öspeaking specifics about the presidential elections, but just as our generation, how can we be confident that after this presidential election that our generation can enter into an optimistic America politically?

Speaker Ryan: Yes, so this is what inspired me to get into public service as a vocation. As I mentioned, my mentor, I lost my dad when I was young, so I grew up with mentors. Jack Kemp was one of my mentors. And what inspired me to public service, among other people, was Jack Kemp and his sense of passion and optimism for good ideas, for making a difference in peopleís lives, for having meaning. And that is what politics should be. Thatís what it can be. Thatís what it has been. And thatís what if we all work together and focus on it, it can be again.

And the point Iím trying to make here is that right now our sense of politics. And this isnít just the right or just the left, this is happening all across our country. We are slipping into being a divisive country. We are speaking to each other in echo chambers where we only talk to those who agree with us and we think that there is something wrong with the people who donít agree with us. We question and impugn motives, instead of test theories and ideas. That is where it doesnít need to be and where it wasnít, and where it shouldnít be.

And so the whole point I would make is if weíre going to keep this beautiful America experiment going weíre going to have to stay unified as a country. And that does not have mean we all have to agree with the same ideas or policies or candidates. But it means we need to raise our respect for one another, our public discourse, so that we can get a better outcome at the end of the day. Our founders were very clear about this. And they made us this beautiful system, but the system only works if we participate in a system with mutual respect for one another.

Anybody on this side? How about over there?

Question: Thank you for being with us today, Speaker Ryan. I currently intern, kind of like you did, for Congressman Walbergís office. And my question for you is one of leadership. And certainly with this most recent leadership role that youíve assumed confers a lot of responsibility on you, and I think your personal maximum to be a part of the solution than not a part of the problem confers even more responsibility than the role that youíve assumed as Speaker of the House, and I think a true mark of leadership is learning from a failure, and you speak of willingness to be persuaded when your idea is perhaps not the best idea or the ability to persuade somebody when you think your idea is the better idea. So my question is when has there been a moment in your career in politics or otherwise that youíve been persuaded that one of your ideas or one the things that youíve done perhaps wasnít the best idea and youíve learned from that.

Speaker Ryan: Sure. Iíll give you two examples. I mentioned one in the speech, which was I fell into the trap of thinking about makers and takers in the wrong way, about people who are struggling for a moment need to dependent on government who donít want to be. So, I was callous and I oversimplified and I castigated people with a broad brush. Thatís wrong. And thereís a lot of that happening in America today. I, myself, have made that mistake. I think one of the policy examples of your question is, Iíve spent the last few years touring poor communities around America; rural areas, inner cities, learning about just how people are trying to struggle with poverty. And one of the things that I learned was there are a lot of people who have been in prison, who committed crimes that were not violent crimes and who, once they have that blight on their record and been imprisoned, their future is really bleak.

And, in the 1990s, I came here in the late Ď90s, we, I think, overcompensated on some of our criminal-justice laws. I think we overcompensated on some of our laws where we had so many mandatory minimums and three strikes youíre out that we ended up putting people for long prison terms, which ends up ruining their life and hurting their communities where we could have had alternative means of incarceration, better means of actually dealing with the problem than basically destroying a personís life. And so that is why I have become more of a late convert to criminal-justice reform. Criminal-justice reform is something that I never thought about when I was younger in Congress. Itís something that I thought just be tough on crime, be tough on crime. And I think we as Republicans and Democrats, kind of overcompensated on this in the 1990s. And now that we see the path of the pathologies that have come from it, I think we got to go back and fix that.

That is why, as Speaker, I talked with Bob Goodlatte about this last night, weíre going to bring criminal justice-reform bills, which are now out of the judiciary committee, to the House floor and advance this because what weíre learning is and what I learned, I didnít necessarily know this before, is redemption is a beautiful thing. Itís a great thing. Redemption is what makes this place work, "this place" being America, society. And we need to honor redemption and we need to make redemption something that is valued in our culture, in our society and in our laws. And that is why I think criminal-justice reform, something that I changed my position on, from learning about the power of redemption and the fact that our laws got this wrong. Thatís something we can improve. So that when a young man comes out of prison, a person who is not a violent criminal, who did something where he really need an addiction counseling, he needed some other kinds of mentoring, maybe faith. That he can actually go back and be productive members of society. Be a good husband, be a good father. Make a difference, reach his potential. Thatís something we want to see more of, and I think our laws need to reflect that. And I think I learned a pretty good lesson about that over the last few years.

Yes? The guy with the bow tie. Oh, by the way, if youíre Ė youíre a Michigan State fan? Yeah, so what happened? I picked them to win the whole darn thing in my bracket, so my brackets are destroyed because of that. Good grief, I mean, yeahÖokay.

Question: Mr. Speaker, my name is Jim Bettencourt. Iím with both Representative Steve King and Trent Franks. My question to you is on, you know, you talk about poverty. You talked about helping people rise up. And Iíve heard you say that before. How does your faith impact your role as Speaker and when you assumed that, and I heard that you were in a duck blind and I hunt quite frequentlyÖ

Speaker Ryan: Deer blind.

Question: Deer blind.

Speaker Ryan: Deer stand actually.

Question: How did that come about? Was it your faith that just said, ďYes, I should do thisĒ? Or how did you come to thatÖ?

Speaker Ryan: Well, Catholic guilt had a part of this. Just to be very clear, Iím a Catholic. You canít, in my mind separate your faith from your daily walk in life, from your personal, private, public life. Itís one and the same. Iím a Christian who chooses to practice Christianity as a practicing Catholic. And we have certain principles that I think are very important that apply very well to what we do in public life as lay Catholics, and that is the principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, preferential option for the poor. What it basically means is people. People are the solutions.

Itís one of the reasons why Iím a conservative. Itís one of the reasons why I passionately believe in the constitution and the concept of federalism. Because itís in perfect keeping with my tenets of my faith, which is whether itís fighting poverty eye to eye, soul to soul, local community groups, civic groups, on the ground poverty fighters or whether its making sure that we donít have a big arrogant paternalistic condescending government that is taking power from our lives, power from our communities and displacing. It gives me a sense of philosophy that is grounded in my faith but it also gives me a sense of how I should conduct myself, both personally and publicly because I think theyíre inseparable, number one.

Number two, youíre always going to fail, and when you fail and after you failed you ask for forgiveness and you try and pickup and improve yourself going forward. So to me, itís an inseparable thing. First, Iím a husband and a father, then Iím a public servant. And thatís just the way I order these things in my mind. And using these principles I think gives me a sense of how to conduct myself. Iím going to do a bad job all the time, but Iím always here trying to improve upon the mistakes Iíve made.

Speaker Ryan: Any ladies? Yeah, right there.

Question: What role do you think members of Congress have in bringing our nation together as it seems so divided?

Speaker Ryan: I think how we conduct ourselves personally is very important. I think we set example and we live by example. But also, we have to understand who we are, especially here in the House. We are the part of government thatís closes to the people. We are the part of government that is up for election every other year, so weíre closes to the people and we are the voice. And what we have to remember is, as representatives of the people we are also leaders. We serve in a constitutional republic. And that means members of Congress, I think, need to be part of the solution not part of the problem.

And this is what we are laboring to do here in the House Republican Conference, which is we see problems in America. We think the country is heading in the wrong direction. And as members of Congress we believe most people agree with us by virtue of us being here. I think the polls basically say about 7 out of 10 of Americans think that America is heading the wrong direction. Okay. Then as a member of Congress it is not our job simply to say we are just as angry as the rest of everybody else. It is not our job just to put gas on the fire. It is our job to channel this concern, this fear, this anxiety, this anger into solutions, into ideas on how to fix it. This is what our job as members of Congress is.

If we donít like the direction the country is going, if we donít like this particular policy or that trend, what are we going to do to fix it? How are we going to be part of the solution? And if we in Congress canít get that right, how can we expect the people that we represent to do it as well? If we canít raise our gaze, raise the tone of our rhetoric, attempt tenor of debate and offer real concrete ideas and solutions to fix our countryís problems, then how can we expect anybody else to do the same?

So that is why through leadership by example, I think members of Congress need to be part of the solution by putting an agenda out there that says, ďAmerica, we have problems that we can fix, and we need to do this together. We need to unify.Ē

What really bothers me the most of politics these days is this notion of identity politics. That weíre going to win an election by dividing people. That weíre going to win an election by talking to people in ways that divide and separate them from other people, rather than inspiring people on our common humanity, on our common ideals, and our common culture, on the things that should unify us. We all want to be prosperous. We all want to be healthy. We want everybody to succeed. We want people to reach their potential in their lives. And so what do we do get policies that actually do that and achieve that?

Now, liberals and conservatives are going to disagree with one another on that. No problem. Thatís what this is all about. So letís have a battle of ideas. Letís have a contest of whose ideas are better and why our ideas are better. And have that kind of debate. And members of Congress can be that. And that is one of the things weíre trying to do.

How about over there in the sweater?

Question: Aside from changing how people approach different ideas Ė sorry.

Speaker Ryan: Just speak right into it.

Question: Aside from changing peopleís approach on how they approach different ideas and different opinions, what other institutional changes can we make to help minimize legislative gridlock.

Speaker Ryan: Well, legislative gridlock, I think, is opening up the rules process. When I became speaker, I made a couple of decisions, which was not to have the leadership predetermine the outcome of everything. And that is kind of what ended up happening. I came here in 1998. It was a different system, and more members of Congress could bring more amendments to the floor and you werenít sure of the outcome of something. When we lost the majority, I think, the then Democratic majority looked at it as critical, but I think they consolidated power greatly.

I remember sitting here in this committee commiserating with my fellow Democrats about how the committee was losing its power to shape legislation. Therefore, members -- rank and file members of Congress were losing their power to shape ideas and legislation because power was becoming consolidated. When we retook the majority I donít think we decentralize power enough. I think we still kept a bit of that consolidation of power. So what I'm laboring to do is change the culture of this institution to decentralize the power so that ideas are done in the committees and brought to the floor by members of Congress. That cultural change I believe is going to help get a better result at the end of the day; perhaps a less predictable result, but a better result.

So I came in this job different than most people come into this job. Most people who become speaker work their way up the leadership ladder, which is a fine path to take in Congress. I never saw myself doing that. I always saw myself as a policy maker, hoping to be a chairman of this committee to write great policy. I was chairman of Budget Committee and chairman of this committee. And you spend your time in Congress focusing. If youíre jack-of-all trades in Congress then you make yourself a mile wide and an inch deep. That is in my opinion not an effective way to be an effective policy maker, to make this a good vocation.

So you need to focus and specialize. Well, what do you do when you focus and specialize? You go on a committee in the area that you care about, the policy. So that is why I think these committees should be the ones writing the policy. And if youíre not on this committee but you care about this policy, then you should go and do something about it by having an amendment on the floor. But if the leadership consolidates power and short-circuits that process, then I feel like this institution is short-circuited. This institution does not function at its full potential. And that is one of the reasons why I decided to take this job because I wanted to see that kind of leadership change occur.  I can tell you itís not easy to do, but change in the culture is hard to change but I think weíve made a great deal of progress.

Last five months, we've got the biggest transportation bill we've had since the mid-1990s. The most comprehensive rewrite of our K-12 education laws in 25 years. We finally rewrote our customs and border laws on international trade that weíve been trying to rewrite for decades. We had tax policies that we worked on in here for over ten years we've made permanent. So we've made doc fixes. There's a big Medicare problem that was 17 times we kept patching this Medicare problem, one year at a time, months at a time, we finally permanently fixed it. So by loosening control, letting policy makers actually write the policy, I think we've gotten a better result. We had a 120 years or something like that amendments of the highway bill, I had no idea what was the outcome of the highway bill would have been. It was very partisan for a while, but we ended up having over 300 votes. So, I think by loosening control, decentralizing power, subsidiaries so to speak, letting people do their jobs, I think you get a better outcome and have more participants, and the quality of the debate improves as well.

Thank you very much everybody. Enjoy your time here. I hope you learn some good lessons.

Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

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