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Articulate, sarcastic, self- confident, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan brings an evangelical fervor to the task of tackling the government’s growing debt, which leaders in both parties agree will eventually trigger a crisis.
“This coming debt crisis is the most predictable crisis we’ve ever had in this country,” the House budget committee chairman said earlier this year. “What if your president, your senator and your congressman knew it was coming? What if they knew what they needed to do to stop it from happening” and “they chose to do nothing about because it wasn’t good politics? What would you think of that person? It would be immoral.”
The decision by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to make the Wisconsin congressman his running mate will transform the U.S. election into a choice between two, vastly different visions for restoring the country’s economic strength and putting the federal government’s fiscal house in order for the long term.
The centerpiece of the so-called Ryan plan is the overhaul of Medicare, the massive and quickly growing health-insurance program for the elderly that’s projected to swamp the federal budget. Ryan, 42, wants to replace the traditional program with a plan to give seniors a fixed amount of money to buy private health coverage. The theory is that competition among insurers for their business will bring down spiraling costs.
Democrats say it won’t work, predicting seniors will be left to either shoulder bigger bills, forgo care or both.
While President Barack Obama calls for raising taxes on higher-income earners, Ryan would do just the opposite, dropping the top income tax rate to 25 percent from next year’s 39 percent, arguing that will make the economy more efficient.
Ryan has also called for a comprehensive revamp of the tax code, shrinking the number of brackets.
Because he takes a hard line against tax increases, and would only slowly phase in his Medicare plan -- it wouldn’t begin until 2023 -- he’s called for dramatic cuts in food stamps, Medicaid and other programs for low-income Americans to reduce the deficit.
He says that will empower the poor, arguing that the federal safety net has become a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” Democrats disagree, and Ryan ran into sharp criticism from some fellow Catholics earlier this year when he said his cuts were inspired by the church’s teachings.
While Democrats will target the Romney-Ryan ticket’s economic blueprint, some Republicans are likely to find what they would consider blemishes in his record, too.
He supported the 2008 government bailout of Wall Street, loathed by Tea Party activists, as well as of the automobile industry. He backed the creation of the Medicare prescription- drug benefit, which had been the biggest entitlement expansion in decades until Obama pushed through his health-care overhaul. Though the drug benefit is now forecast to cost less than initially projected, the price tag is still projected to top $350 billion.
He supports so-called Davis-Bacon rules requiring the government to pay workers on construction projects locally “prevailing wages.” That’s a priority for unions, because it raises workers’ pay, and anathema to many Republicans because it increases the cost of building highways and other infrastructure projects. Some Republican lawmakers say Ryan’s budget takes too long to cut the debt, noting it would be decades before it produced a single balanced budget.
Ryan is hardly a Washington outsider. He has spent most of his adult life in the capital, working first as an aide to several lawmakers and former lawmakers. He calls the late Jack Kemp a mentor and is perhaps the most prominent acolyte of the former New York congressman’s brand of conservatism-with-a- smile.
Ryan himself was elected to Congress in 1998, at the age of 28, to represent a district covering the southeast corner of Wisconsin, between Milwaukee and the Illinois border. He was born in the district, in the town of Janesville, the youngest of four children. His father, Paul, was a lawyer. His mother, Betty, was a homemaker who later started an interior-design business.
He attended Craig High School in Janesville, where he was both prom king and voted “Biggest Brown Noser.” For much of his early life, Paul Davis Ryan was known as “P.D” to distinguish himself from his father. He switched to Paul when he went to college after tiring of explaining his name wasn’t “Petey.”
His father died of a heart attack when Ryan was a teenager, one reason the congressman is now a fitness buff. He’s one of a number of House Republicans who’ve become devotees of P90X, an exercise program that bills itself as a “revolutionary system of 12 sweat-inducing, muscle-pumping workouts, designed to transform your body from regular to ripped in just 90 days.”
He attended Miami University in Southwestern Ohio, where he studied political science and economics. While in college, he interned at Oscar Mayer, selling its products to grocery store meat managers. During a promotion for turkey bacon, Ryan once drove the company’s “Weinermobile,” a car shaped like a giant hot dog.
He met his future wife, Janna, while working as an aide in Washington. She was a staff member to former Democratic Congressman Bill Brewster of Oklahoma. She’s a lawyer who doesn’t practice and is no longer a Democrat. They now have three young children: Liza, Charlie and Sam.
The boyish-looking Ryan can often be found walking the halls of the Capitol with Ipod headphones in his ears, listening to Led Zeppelin, easily mistaken for the aide he once was.
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