Rep. Ryan: 'We Have Pursued Solidarity but Abused Subsidiarity'

In an exclusive interview, the chairman of the House Budget Committee defends his interpretation of Catholic social teaching.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, has said that his cost-cutting federal budget was inspired by Catholic social teaching.

But this didn’t sit well with some Catholics.

Sixty Catholic theologians and activists issued a statement saying that Ryan’s budget is “morally indefensible and betrays Catholic principles of solidarity, just taxation and a commitment to the common good.” And nearly 90 Jesuit scholars and other faculty members and administrators at Georgetown University sent Ryan a letter saying that his budget “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In addition, a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee sent a letter to Congress critical of the Ryan budget.

But Ryan, 42, was relaxed, in shirtsleeves and in a good mood, when Register correspondent Charlotte Hays spoke with him in his office in Washington a few hours after he spoke April 26 at Georgetown.

Ryan earned a degree in economics and political science from Miami University in Ohio and is serving his seventh term in the House. He and his wife, Janna, live in Janesville, Wis., with their children.


You are being accused of “mangling” Catholic social teaching, or turning centuries of Catholic social teaching on its ear. I wonder if what’s going on here is a fight over who owns Catholic social teaching. Is there a monopoly on it?

Right! And there isn’t a monopoly. That’s my point. I can no more claim exclusive justification for my economic and political views than a liberal can for theirs within the Church’s social teaching. This is a matter for prudential judgment left to the laity to exercise their discretion. People of good will can disagree on these things. You have these hits come at you — like that letter — but we should raise the tone of the debate. We shouldn’t just try to shoot the messenger and try to nullify the notion that there are other ways in which to implement Church teaching. That just does a disservice to the kind of debate we need to have.

I don’t think liberals can claim exclusive jurisdiction to Church teaching the way they interpret it. Nor can conservatives. There is plenty of room for prudential judgment in between.


Which Catholic thinkers and documents have influenced you?

The magisterium, the Compendium [of the Social Doctrine of the Church], the encyclicals — you know, the social magisterium is basically the encyclicals and papal letters. People try to paste different epistemological views on me, but if you are going to try to tell me what my philosophy is or what my motivating philosopher is, it would be Thomas Aquinas.

I just finished one of George Weigel’s books that I really liked, but instead of saying a particular theologian or writer, I’d say the magisterium itself, the Compendium, my own prayers. And I believe that the founding principles, the Founders, the American idea, created a society that is well within the political expression of Catholic social teaching. 


How do you interpret the “preferential option for the poor,” a key point in Catholic social teaching?

Government should not be all-encompassing; government should be focused, and, when you spend government money, it should be focused on spending it on the people who need help the most and not those who need it the least. That’s why we call for means testing. That’s why we call for getting rid of corporate welfare. That’s why we call for circumscribing government programs to the ones who need it the most, why we have in our Medicare reforms a full subsidy for the poor to cover 100% of the costs; that is why in all my Social Security reform bills I bring the minimum Social Security benefit up above the poverty level, which is not the case today, so that no elderly person is under the poverty line.

That means, to me: Target your money where it needs to go the most, which is the preferential option for the poor. But your poverty-fighting strategies should give focus to treating not symptoms, but root causes. That is where I think we have lost our way as a country, because, in treating symptoms, we have pursued solidarity but abused subsidiarity. And these are principles that are interconnected, and people of good will can debate within the sphere of where the balance between those two principles occurs.

But if you just have solidarity without subsidiarity, you end up with big government and rank materialism. And so we need to make sure we keep an eye on revitalizing those civil mediating institutions, those institutions in our society that exist between the person and their government, which are in their community and where we work through our good works as people to advance the common good. And that’s where I think we’ve seen atrophy.

We should not think there is a morally equivalent replacement of these institutions in government bureaucracy. There is an important role for government, and I think that government can help with financing, but it shouldn’t be down to the level of micromanaging our communities.

We want more involvement in people’s lives through our social-mediating institutions. That, to me, is a part of the poverty-fighting strategy that we have lost. The last point I want to make is that the preferential option for the poor means have an economy that is growing and have an economy that is wired, so that people who are in pockets of poverty that have never seen growth and economic opportunity before get it.

Economic growth is fundamentally central to all of this. And I really believe that the policies that our government is pursuing today are anti-growth policies. We need economic growth.


What is the role of government? Does government have a duty to take care of the poor and disadvantaged?  

I do believe there is a duty. That is why I keep trying to say government has an important role to play here. But it shouldn’t be such a dominant role that it displaces civil society, that brings us closer to what Blessed John Paul said in Centesimus Annus, what he called the “social-assistance state.” There gets to a point where we can become a social-assistance state, and we have to be mindful of that.

So, to me, government has a very important role — the federal government — in fighting poverty; but we want to make sure that its role is not too overburdensome, so that it displaces all those good works that we do and moves towards what Pope John Paul II called the social-assistance state.


I want to ask you about what is just taxation. Sometimes it appears that the government treats the money of citizens as if it belongs to government, which will allow what the citizen is allowed to keep.

That’s a consciousness I don’t operate from. This is private property. People send their money to the government — it’s the people’s money, not the government’s money. There is a view up here in Washington — they call it the tax expenditure point of view or philosophy — that all the money is the government’s unless it benevolently sends it back to people.

I totally, obviously, don’t ascribe to that view. From a tax perspective, everybody believes in having a progressive tax system: The more you make, the more you pay. But there comes a point where you are actually stifling growth, putting hurdles and barriers to success and entrepreneurship and to reaping the rewards of your labor and to being competitive in the global economy. We have to be ever more mindful of that because we are in a global economy.

We want to have a tax system that is as efficient as possible and raises the proper amount of revenue to the government. And people like me don’t want to be sitting in Washington and pick winners and losers through the tax code, because what ends up happening when you do that is that the politically powerful calls the shots, the people with the muscle; with the lobbyists, they’re the ones who get to write the rules.

That, to me, is fundamentally unfair. So we need a system that is clean and efficient and lets people keep their own money in the first place and decide what they do with it instead of having more money come to Washington, or a higher tax be levied on the public, so that people with political muscle can decide how to spend it.

I think, at the end of the day, government can be corrupt in this, and you’ve got to watch that.


Is the so-called Buffett Rule (a tax plan proposed in 2011 by President Obama that would assess a minimum tax rate of 30% to people who make more than $1 million a year) a moral rule?

[Laughing] No; it’s a political tactic. The president is using it to divide the country along class lines.


Well, let’s talk about food stamps. Is there a moral element to what is going on with food stamps now?

Food stamps have risen 270% over the last decade. The rolls have quadrupled. We had a hearing on this issue in the budget committee. If we just kept food-stamp laws where they were before the stimulus was passed and the changes made by the Pelosi Congress, they would have increased by 40%, adjusting for the recession. This is [from] an economist from the University of Chicago who came and testified to this fact. But the 160% increase that he cited was because of eligibility changes. We have a system called “categorical eligibility,” where people are allowed to get food stamps even if they are not actually eligible.

The reforms we are talking about are pretty commonsense reforms, which is that you need to actually be eligible for this benefit in order to receive it. We have to watch the fact that these programs are growing at unsustainable rates, and we also want to be mindful of encouraging people to be independent and self-sufficient and moving on to lives of their own.

What we reviewed at this hearing is that, when people come off government support, they face a high marginal tax rate, meaning they are better off financially remaining government dependent than they are going to work. That is a huge disincentive to going to work and being independent. We have to be mindful of those disincentives to work.


I know you can’t get into the mind of the opponents of your tax bill. But why do they pursue the course they pursue? Do they think we have the resources to do everything? Do they believe there is always somebody you can tax? How do they think we can sustain the current system? What motivates them?

I try not to get into people’s motivations or question their motives. I just look at the practical results of their arguments: the fact that they are fiscally unsustainable, that the status quo is a debt crisis and that the end of that is Europe — and that is really ugly. We want to prevent that from happening.

I just think that there are people who may bring their political ideology to bear on these debates who prefer transformation from the American idea to more of a progressive welfare state. I disagree with that. I think that that is bad for people; plus I think it is government being dishonest to their people, making promises the government has no means of keeping. That, to me, is dishonest government.


Is there a moral element to the national debt we are facing?

Of course there is. Pope Benedict said it — we’re living in untruth. We’re living at the expense of future generations. We’re telling our children that because we can’t live within our means, they are going to pay our bills: You are going to have diminished futures; you’re going to have an extra burden on your backs that we didn’t have.

That, to me, has severe moral implications. When he was Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict wrote this great book, Without Roots, with Marcello Pera, an atheist, who was president of the Italian Senate. They both — an atheist politician in Italy and a cardinal — arrived at the same conclusion: that moral relativism is the undoing of Western civilization, to put it in a nutshell.

So I would argue that the biggest problem in America today — I wouldn’t say it is the debt or some economic GDP statistic — is more relativism, where truth is becoming some fungible thing. We’re gravitating away from absolute truths, and we’re not teaching our kids these things. My kids go to Catholic schools, so they learn this. The point I would say is that we are practicing fiscal relativism.

We are now translating this lack of fundamental truth into our fiscal policies, and we are living in untruth because we are borrowing against our children. We are making promises to our fellow citizens that we know the government can’t keep. And they are organizing their lives around these promises.

And so, the point I am trying to make is that we need to be honest about that — both parties messed this up. The sooner we face up to it, the better off everybody is. We don’t make changes [for people] 55 and above for Medicare because we think we can still borrow money to make good on those promises; but we are going to have to make changes for the future to make those promises and make these programs sustainable for the future and avoid a debt crisis.

If we don’t do that soon, then the bond markets turn on us, and we have a debt crisis; and then we are going to have to cut people who have already organized their lives around these promises and have retired. That is exactly what is going on in Europe. That, to me, is wrong, and there is a moral component to that.


How should a Catholic layman and politician who has put forward an economic plan that has been criticized by certain members of the hierarchy of his country respond?

You know, they did this to [Speaker of the House] John Boehner when he spoke at Catholic [University of America] last year. We had a bit of this last year, so I exchanged some letters with [New York Cardinal] Tim Dolan. Tim was the archbishop of Milwaukee, and I represent a lot of that diocese, so I’ve known Tim for a long time. And as his letter is pretty darn clear — it’s a matter of prudential judgment and focus on these issues.

I think we need to have a better poverty-fighting policy than the one we’ve got, and the only piece of evidence I feel I need to offer right now is that we have the highest poverty rates in a generation, and we have a debt crisis around the corner — and the poor are the ones who are going to get hurt first and the worst. You get used to [the criticism] in this kind of a job because, when you make difficult decisions, people who have different political opinions or believe in different things will attack you; and you get kind of used to that in this job.


When Obamacare was being debated, the argument always made was that uninsured people went to the emergency room and we all paid for it. I thought that was a good arrangement, and it didn’t take over one-sixth of our economy. But whatever we do, there just isn’t enough medical care to go around. Decisions have to be made.

This is where the preferential option applies pretty clearly, in my opinion, which is that, through better health-care policies, through more patient-centered and directed health care, government should subsidize people who need it more than those who don’t.

I had a bill with Tom Coburn, Devin Nunez and Richard Burr which had refundable tax credits. The lower income you had, the bigger tax credit you had — which is basically a voucher to go get health insurance. And then we had all these other insurance reforms so that it is affordable; and then we had risk pools to subsidize people who had pre-existing conditions. That, to me, makes sense.

A 45-year-old woman who gets breast cancer — you don’t want her to go to the poor house because she had breast cancer. Subsidize her health care. Everybody is better off if we do that, and do it on the front end, where you have disease management and preventative medicine.

Medicaid is really not working. It is subjugating people to second-class health care.

Bring them into the private system so they get the same kind of health insurance everybody else does — and just have a bigger subsidy so they can get it: Those are smarter strategies that bring choice and competition into the health-care system, which are now being repealed with Obamacare.

There is a great test case — we’ve got great principles; we’ve got a good idea of what works in health care. We should apply these. We spend two and a half times per person what any other industrialized country spends.

So we spend plenty of money. We’re just not spending it intelligently and on the right people. Let’s do that, and we can turn this part of our economy into an asset — and we can have a society where everybody gets affordable health care.

But the president’s health-care law is a disaster, and it won’t do that. It is a disaster in so many ways: It violates religious liberty, it violates choice, and it will explode costs; and it ultimately will put a government bureaucrat between a person and their doctor and what they think they need. That is just not a role we should give to government.

Register Correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.