WASHINGTON — Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday bemoaned America’s “broken politics” in a farewell speech in which he called Washington’s failure to overhaul costly federal benefit programs “our greatest unfinished business.”
“Our complex problems are absolutely solvable,” Ryan said at the Library of Congress, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, where he’s served two decades in the House. “That is to say our problems are solvable if our politics will allow it.”
The Wisconsin Republican’s half-hour address, which touted achievements and admits shortcomings, came as he closes his three-year run as speaker. Despite GOP control of the White House and Congress since early 2017, it’s been an unusually tumultuous period dominated by the erratic decision-making and verbal outbursts of President Donald Trump and by Republican divisions over top issues including health care and immigration.
Ryan’s departure comes six weeks after an Election Day that saw Democrats capture House control. Their triumph followed a campaign in which they criticized Republicans for trying to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s popular health care law, a primary GOP priority.
Under Ryan, Congress approved the biggest tax cuts in decades, boosted defense spending and rolled back Obama regulations protecting clean air and water. But annual federal deficits are surging, Medicare and other expensive entitlement programs are growing, and their attempt to scuttle Obama’s health care statute crashed.
In Ryan’s waning days as House speaker, Congress was trying to avoid a partial government shutdown as Trump clashes with Democrats over his demand for taxpayer money to build a border wall with Mexico.
Ryan cited passage of more than 1,000 bills, though most were minor, and predicted that the failed GOP effort to repeal and rewrite Obama’s health care law will be the framework for an ultimate solution. He said the party’s fruitless attempts to revamp immigration laws — both the House and Senate rejected bills — came closer than people realize.
“We have taken on some of the biggest challenges of our time, and we’ve made a great and lasting difference in the trajectory of this country,” he said.
Yet he also underscored recent failures.
Ryan, 48, acknowledged never achieving two longtime dreams — reining in spending by the government’s huge entitlement programs and controlling the enormous and growing national debt. Thanks partly to the 10-year, $1.5 trillion tax cut Republicans enacted last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates a record $12.4 trillion accumulated federal deficit for the coming decade.
“I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality, and I consider this our greatest unfinished business,” he said.
While the House-passed health care bill would have culled savings from Medicaid and other programs, the effort died in the GOP-run Senate, killed by solid Democratic opposition and a handful of Republican opponents.
“Ultimately, solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today,” Ryan said.
Ryan was elected to Congress in 1998 and became a leader of Republicans trying to shrink government. As House Budget Committee chairman, he wrote spending plans that envisioned squeezing savings from popular benefit programs like Medicare and eliminating deficits — cuts Congress never actually enacted.
He was Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012 and became speaker in 2015 after conservative unrest prompted the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, John Boehner, R-Ohio. Ryan announced last April that he would not seek House re-election, saying he needed more family time.
Ryan never explicitly mentioned Trump in his remarks. But he described a divisiveness that has been a hallmark of Trump’s constant demonization of his political opponents, often on Twitter.
“All of this gets amplified by technology, with an incentive structure that preys on people’s fears, and algorithms that play on anger,” he said. “Outrage has become a brand.”
He asked why politics has become so bitter, then answered his own question, saying, “This kind of politics starts from a place of outrage and seeks to tear us down from there.”
On immigration, Ryan said no matter how the border wall battle is resolved, “The system will still be in need of serious reform. And no less than our full potential as a nation here is at stake.”
In a departure from Trump’s frequent anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ryan said a fix should include not just border security but also helping immigrants in the U.S. illegally stay “and be a part of our American fabric.” He said that should include “the undocumented population,” a group estimated at around 11 million people.
He said resolving the problem would take “some of the venom out of our discourse.”
Ryan for years was a quiet force for broad immigration overhauls that conservatives opposed as going too far in offering citizenship to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. As speaker, he couldn’t unify Republicans behind one approach.
On foreign policy, Ryan called for “committing to the pillars of international relations,” a contrast with Trump’s pillorying of NATO and withdrawal from some organizations. America must lead “not with bluster but with steady, principled action,” he said.
Ryan barely discussed last year’s GOP tax cut bill, which he considers perhaps his most significant accomplishment. He cited that bill’s tax breaks for investors in low-income communities and cautions Republicans not to let efforts to ease poverty “drift from your consciousness.”