Entitlement Reform Unlikely in 2018, Ryan Says

Published February 6, 2018

Congress will probably not enact entitlement reforms in 2018, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) says.

Partisan disagreements will block any proposed changes to entitlements, Ryan told attendees at a public forum hosted by WisPolitcs.com.

“It’s more of a wish list of mine, but I don’t see us tackling it this year,” Ryan said at the January 12 event, held at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Continuing Education. “No matter what you do, you’re going to have to find bipartisan consensus to fix these thorny, long-term problems, and we don’t have that right now.”

Block-Granting Programs

Peter Ferrara, senior fellow for entitlement and budget policy at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says changing federal entitlement programs into a state-run block-grant system would remove incentives to expand programs beyond serving the truly needy.

“Block grants do not involve welfare cuts,” Ferrara said. “Right now, all these programs involve the federal government paying the state government to provide welfare. With block grants, if you spend less, the federal government does not take money away from you.”

Ferrara says Congress should publicize the benefits of block-grant reforms.

“Block grants need to be advanced as better for the poor,” Ferrara said. “That’s how we passed means-tested welfare reform in 1996, on that argument that it’s good for the poor, and it was good for the poor.”

Block grants could finally win the ‘War on Poverty’ after more than a half-century of failure, Ferrara says.

“Paul Ryan should give a speech and say, ‘We’re extending block grants to all means-tested federal welfare programs,'” Ferrara said. “‘Lyndon Johnson started the War on Poverty in 1964. I’m the man who is going to win it, and this is how we’re going to win the War on Poverty.’ All he needs to do is make that argument this year.”

Political Popularity

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, says entitlement reform is a proven winning issue for politicians.

“The reality is that welfare reform is the issue that put Clinton in the White House in 1992,” Rector said. “It was the singular, and by far the most important, accomplishment of [Speaker of the House Newt] Gingrich’s Republican Congress in the mid-1990s. It was the most popular thing they achieved.”

Rector says entitlement reform could benefit Republican Party lawmakers once again.

“If they were to get back to the themes of that reform, which really originated with Ronald Reagan, they could essentially begin to dominate the issue and have an attractive pro-poor policy to put in front of the American electorate,” Rector said.

Calls for More Reform

Rector says Congress prematurely declared victory over the welfare state in the 1990s.

“The problem with that reform was that they only modified one of these 90 different programs,” Rector said. “Food stamps, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Medicaid, housing [assistance]—all of those were completely unchanged. After having reformed only one program, the Republicans kind of washed their hands and have walked away from the issue for the past 20 years. The welfare state moved back to the Left and got larger and larger.”

‘A Huge Challenge’

Rector says though entitlement reform will not be easy, it’ll be worth the effort.

“Reforming the welfare state, in and of itself with the 90 different programs, is a huge challenge but a very rewarding policy,” Rector said. “There are more than 90 means-tested welfare programs, such as the EITC, food stamps, and Medicaid. These programs actively and aggressively penalize marriage. The current welfare system is largely focused on redistributing income.”

Hoping for Bipartisanship

Reforming entitlements and helping the truly needy should transcend ideological divisions, Rector says.

“The Left always wants to spend more money, the Right always wants to spend less money, and what the programs are actually doing to poor people is a side issue,” Rector said. “What I recommend is welfare reform that is focused on improving the psychological well-being of poor people, encouraging self-support, and reducing what I call behavioral poverty: a cluster of behaviors that destroy human lives, including the collapse of marriage, the decline of work, school failure, drugs, crime, and a few other things.

“In dysfunctional communities, the welfare state, far from addressing those problems, actually makes them worse,” Rector said.