House Speaker Paul Ryan spent the past week announcing policy plans designed to fill the void left by the party’s presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, who has virtually no detailed policy proposals save for outrageous propositions like building a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer.
But Ryan’s plans are themselves little more than platitudes and proverbs, offering few actionable policies.
Take the poverty plan. It states that we should “expect work-capable adults to work or prepare for work in exchange for welfare benefits,” something that’s already required under the 1996 welfare reform law.
Under “Policy Recommendations,” Ryan calls on Congress to use the next authorization of the nation’s welfare programs “to strengthen the focus on work and work preparation by requiring states to engage more recipients in activities that will help them advance up the economic ladder.”
What exactly that means is anyone’s guess. Does he mean more job training, a temporary public works program, government-backed internships? If Ryan is proposing to toughen work requirements or the sanctions against people who fail to meet them, why doesn’t he explain that in any detail? Who will it apply to, how will states implement it, and what is the timeline for that implementation? What’s the proposed budgetary impact?
“The language is incredibly vague, it’s full of mantras and platitudes and old Republican talking points,” Rebecca Vallas, a poverty expert at the Center for American Progress, told The Intercept. “At points he acknowledges problems that exist — the importance of child care in terms of removing barriers to employment for parents who have children — … and then he has no solutions for it.”
In another section, Ryan proposes a serious change to the government’s Supplemental Security Income program, which offers income support primarily to disabled adults and children.
The speaker complains that the “average lifetime stay on SSI for people who come onto benefits as children is an incredible 26.7 years.” His solution is to end the SSI cash payment program: “Access to needed services in lieu of cash assistance, whether it be mental or physical therapies, or special-education services in school should be the focus of the SSI program.”
When you’re fundamentally transforming a program that serves 8 million people — many of whom suffer from crippling disabilities — into something completely different, more detail than a single sentence is required.
“That would be absolutely devastating to 1.2, 1.3 million kids,” Vallas said. “They need cash. They need the income support and most of them are living in poverty or close to it. And he’s talking about what, giving them vouchers for services?”
There are a handful of actual policies sprinkled throughout the document. For example, Ryan calls for blocking the Obama administration’s new fiduciary rule, a common-sense measure that prohibits brokers and investment advisers from offering retirement advice that is influenced by conflicts of interest.
So there’s that.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s national security document reads like a collection of Bush-era mantras.
He writes that “wherever possible, we should rely on local forces to defeat terrorists, but we must also be prepared to do what it takes to win.”
He writes that “we cannot take options off the table, because doing so telegraphs weaknesses to our enemies and emboldens them.”
What does it take to win? And what’s on the table? Evidently those are unimportant details.
Ryan does want us to know, however, that “this war will not be won with bullets and bombs alone. It will be won by the force of our ideas.”
Again, the document presents no recommendations for how to do this, saying only that we should “reform overt outreach efforts,” because we “cannot champion the counter-narrative effort if our public image is managed through outdated organizations and methods. These organizations must adapt to the age of viral terror and the new-media landscape.”
Does he mean the State Department should shift from Twitter to Yik Yak? He might as well.
Vacuous policy planning is not new for Ryan. His original claim to fame was a budget proposal he introduced when House Republicans took over Congress in 2010. He was initially hailed by the political media elite as a serious policymaker — but upon more serious inspection, it became obvious that his projections and goals were based on extremely unrealistic assumptions.
Later this month, the speaker will release proposals in four additional areas: the Constitution, the economy, health care, and tax reform. If they all offer the same absence of meaning as his poverty and national security documents, Ryan will hardly be moderating or adding heft to Trump’s extremist, lightweight platform — just enabling it.