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Paul Ryan’s Bad Call

Gage Skidmore

John V. Gerardi - published on 10/12/13 - updated on 06/08/17

His bold proposal to end the deadlock isn't good enough - and Paul Ryan should know better. If he allows Obamacare to be fully implemented, it'll be nearly impossible to ever repeal it.

Rep. Paul Ryan has given a proposal to resolve the budget impasse between the President, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.  The deal will allow the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare” or “the ACA”) to be funded and will temporarily lift the debt ceiling, but it will eliminate the medical device tax and provide the Republicans with a better future position for negotiation on budgetary issues.  From the perspective of Beltway negotiations, it’s a prudent move. 

But it’s not good enough.  And Paul Ryan should know better. 

The Challenges of Paul Ryan

For the last several years, Paul Ryan has been caught in a variety of tough circumstances.  A strict pro-lifer, Ryan had to balance being the running mate for a presidential candidate whose views on abortion were far more flexible.  He frequently has to negotiate with an obtusely free-spending president while attempting to remain faithful to his principles and those of his Tea Party constituents.  He is one of the most intelligent and reasonable Republicans in Congress, and yet he must often deal with foes on both the left and the right who view his proposals with disdain.

Ryan’s record as a Catholic statesman, specifically as it relates to the social teaching of the Church, is another area where he has been the object of intense scrutiny.  In spite of a record of public service that is demonstrably more faithful to Catholic teaching than almost every politician on the Democratic side, the USCCB in 2012 went out of its way to criticize Paul Ryan in particular, specifically for his budgetary views.  A quick Google search for “Paul Ryan Catholic” yields scores of articles that argue for how he has departed from Catholic social teaching by promoting cuts to our wildly bloated, deficit-spending budget. 

Unlike almost every Catholic politician on the left or right, however, Ryan has made sincere attempts to engage cogently with the Church’s social teaching.  He has a healthy understanding of the difference between non-negotiable points of Catholic teaching—the immorality of legalized abortion, gay marriage, and the freedom the Church must enjoy in the public square—as opposed to questions of prudential judgment where individual Catholics may disagree on the means to accomplishing the goods proposed in the Church’s social teaching.  His April 26, 2012 address at Georgetown University demonstrated his clear understanding of the different approaches Catholics may take to prudential questions of politics.

Ryan has argued that his proposals for cutting budgets are rooted in Catholic teaching, and that they give greater deference to the principles of subsidiarity than his opponents’ ideas.  While he received critiques that his budget proposals violated the “preferential option for the poor,” Ryan countered by pointing out that these programs were funded through deficit spending, and that it made no sense to help the poor now while saddling future generations with an unsustainable weight of debt, only leading to further poverty down the road. His proposals were acts of prudential judgment that attempted to accomplish the goals laid out in the social teaching of the Church; they simply employed a different means from those favored by the USCCB.  

For these reasons, I have always admired and respected Paul Ryan, more than I do most other politicians.  I know that the principles of the Church’s social teaching are at least operative in his mind, and that he thinks seriously about how to attain those principles. 

The Current Budget Fight and the Importance of Subsidiarity

Again, in the current fight over the funding of the Affordable Care Act, Ryan is in a tough situation.  On one side, he has an intransigent president who won’t give up on the chief legislative victory of his presidency.  On the other side, Ryan has the conservative base, led by Ted Cruz, which is tired of compromise and desperately wants to shut down the looming, disastrous behemoth of Obamacare.

In this case, I think he made the wrong call by conceding on the funding of the Affordable Care Act.  Obamacare presents a unique threat to the social teaching of the Church and to the health of the country.  I believe it is one point where Republicans have to remain firm.

Why is it such a threat?  The answer is found in the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, of which Ryan claims to be the champion.

This principle, first defined by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, holds that the social needs of a community should be provided first through private activity (principally through the Church), and then through political solutions starting from the smallest and most localized governmental entities outwards.  In holding to this principle, societal ills tend to be alleviated more often by individuals who are most closely involved, knowledgeable, and concerned.

On the flip side, when social ills are resolved at the highest level possible, it leads to powerful governments accumulating more and more power, and ultimately abusing that power.  This is exactly what happened with Obamacare.  Forcing Catholics to provide contraception and abortion coverage to their employees wasn’t incidental to the whole of the ACA.  Rather, it flowed naturally out of it.  When you give the federal government this kind of enormous authority over a huge portion of the national economy, giving it influence over the intensely personal and private life choices of millions of citizens, how can one expect that the government will exercise right judgment at all times?  Such abuses of power are to be expected of enormous, far-reaching federal programs.

That is why Paul Ryan’s proposed deal is imprudent.  Once Obamacare is fully operational, with millions relying on it, it will be impossible politically to repeal.  Once it is entrenched, the federal government will only continue to expand its reach into the private lives of citizens.  If you think that the ACA results in governmental abuses of power now by funding abortion and forcing people to pay for immoral insurance policies, imagine what could happen 5, 10, 20 years down the road.

The fact is, this is the hill to die on, Mr. Ryan.  Don’t be the first to blink.

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