Former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) announced this week that he is using some of the millions of dollars left over in his congressional campaign coffers to launch a nonprofit think tank called the American Idea Foundation.
The group’s website features campaign-style videos with images of the Statue of Liberty, George Washington, the Constitution, the moon landing and Ronald Reagan, with a voice-over from Ryan about restoring a “sense of opportunity, hope and drive” to Americans.
The Washington Times described the launch of the new foundation, with offices in Janesville and Washington, D.C., as evidence that Ryan is “charting a post-Trump political comeback.”
Kevin Seifert, a spokesman for the new group, is also the former executive director of Ryan’s powerful leadership PAC, Team Ryan, which raised tens of millions of dollars for House Republicans in 2018, even as Ryan himself was about to step down with more than $8 million in cash on hand.
“It’s definitely a vehicle that keeps Paul Ryan in the national conversation,” says Mike Browne of the left-leaning One Wisconsin Now. “He can stay in touch with donors, keep a cohort of consultants in his orbit and stay politically viable — without the downside of having to jump into fights if he doesn’t want to.”
“I doubt it was Paul Ryan editing those videos on his laptop,” Browne adds, pointing out that the videos on the new foundation’s website look like campaign ads produced by a professional political consultant.
Moving campaign funds
But by moving his leftover campaign funds to a nonprofit group, Ryan has chosen the most restrictive of the available options for how he uses the money he raised as a member of Congress, says Mike Wittenwyler, an attorney who specializes in campaign finance and political law at the law firm Godfrey-Kahn.
(Other options include setting up a new political action committee, paying down debts or donating the funds to a political party.)
“Moving the money to a 501(c)3 is a very restrictive thing to do,” says Wittenwyler. “He can’t spend the money on political activity. Any lobbying activity has to be very limited.”
Federal campaign-finance law forbids using campaign funds for personal gain, so Ryan can’t pay himself a salary as president of his new foundation using his old campaign funds.
He can use the funds for travel to give speeches and meet with potential donors, however, and he can raise new funds for his foundation to cover his own salary, Wittenwyler says.
As for the American Idea Foundation’s mission, the organization’s website declares that it is “founded on the simple, but profound premise that the condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life.”
“Freedom leads to prosperity” Ronald Reagan intones in one of the foundation’s launch videos, the title of which is a line from a Reagan speech, “Freedom is the Victor.”
To help advance the cause of American class mobility, Ryan says his group will identify community organizations that are successfully fighting poverty, and connect them with academics who will study their success so it can be turned into policy.
No more War on Poverty
The group also promises to “educate policymakers on what works.”
What works, according to Ryan, are not longstanding federal anti-poverty programs including Medicaid, unemployment insurance and food stamps — all of which Ryan sought to cut back in his budget proposals in Congress.
“We’ve been fighting a war on poverty for over 50 years now, and this war has been a stalemate,” Ryan says in a voiceover on one of the videos, which features a lot of footage of African Americans, some of whom speak in support of Ryan’s theory that federal aid programs have fostered a “culture of poverty.”
(Ryan has been heavily criticized in the past for using dog-whistle language to appeal to racist ideas about lazy black welfare recipients.)
The problem with government action on poverty, Ryan says in the video is that it has not been measured by a reduction in poverty, but by “how much money are we throwing at the problem.”
In contrast, his foundation’s website asserts, “The single most successful domestic policy reform of the last 30 years was welfare reform in 1997.”
“This singular success in getting millions of Americans back into lives of self-sufficiency began with the lessons learned through years of experimentation at the state level,” the foundation asserts, stating that it “will use the evidence base it is developing to prepare policymakers to craft the next generation of policies that promote upward mobility.”
Tamarine Cornelius of Kids Forward, the Wisconsin-based child and family advocacy group, worries about Ryan’s approach. She calls Ryan’s assertion that the War on Poverty is at a “stalemate” misleading because it is based only on the federal poverty rate, which measures cash income.
“Other alternative ways of measuring poverty that more fully capture the effects of public assistance show a decline in poverty,’ Cornelius says. “ I hope his new effort won’t use the same wrong yardstick to measure the success of the safety net.”
Criticism from Catholic Bishops
In 2011, when Ryan was the chair of the powerful House Budget Committee, he held a town hall meeting in his district to promote his controversial Path to Prosperity budget proposal, which, among other things, called for permanently extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, making $4 trillion in spending cuts mainly to programs that served people with low and moderate incomes, and converting Medicare into a voucher plan.
“Welfare reform worked well in the 1990s, but it only reformed one program,” Ryan told the crowd. “We need to reform other entitlements.”
His proposal to turn Medicare into a system of vouchers to be used on the private health-care market did not sit well with a group of retirees who showed up to picket the event.
Ryan argued that competition would bring down healthcare costs. This, along with opposing an extension of unemployment benefits in a district ravaged by auto plant closings, drew pointed attacks.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized Ryan for proposing cuts in essential services to the poor, and 90 members of the faculty at Georgetown University wrote a letter asking him to stop claiming that his positions on cutting safety-net programs were based in Catholic theology.
“We would be remiss in our duty to you and our students if we did not challenge your continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families, radically weakens protections for the elderly and sick, and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few,” the Georgetown faculty wrote.
But among Republicans in Washington, before the dawn of the Donald Trump era, Ryan also gained a reputation as a brave and brilliant conservative thinker.
He cultivated an image as a policy wonk and embraced the most fundamental ideological fights between conservatives and progressives. As John Nichols reported in The Nation in 2010, Ryan told conservative radio host Glenn Beck: “What I’ve been trying to do is indict the entire vision of progressivism because I see progressivism as the source, the intellectual source for the big government problems that are plaguing us today,”
Progressivism, Ryan added, “attacks the American idea.”
The American Idea Foundation website clearly lays out a mission of combating the popular progressive ideology of Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York.
“Too many people are not seeing the benefits of a free, vibrant, market-based system,” the website declares. “Because of this, individuals are gravitating towards extreme ideologies.”
The foundation’s stated goals are: “Increasing economic opportunities, expanding upward mobility, reducing poverty, and using evidence and data to inform policy decisions.”
But there is plenty of conservative politics mixed in.
FEC data that shows how much money Ryan moved from his campaign to the new foundation won’t be available until the end of the year. And the foundation’s 990 financial disclosure form won’t be available from the IRS until November 2020.
Meanwhile, expect to see a lot more of Paul Ryan.
“It would be prudent to leave some money in his campaign account,” Wittenwyler says. “A lot of members keep some money in their account when they retire so they can use it for travel, in case some candidate in California asks them to come to a fundraising dinner.”