Q&A: Paul Ryan guides Republicans back to robust defense spending

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With his final spending proposal as House Budget Committee chairman, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is attempting to move the Republican Party back to its Reagan roots as committed to investing in a strong defense even amid challenging budgetary conditions.

The Republicans had slowly abandoned the virtually unanimous position -- established during President Ronald Reagan's administration -- as concern spiked about the unprecedented levels of debt incurred under President Obama. Even last year, when faced with allowing automatic, across-the-board defense cuts to kick in under the budget sequester, congressional Republicans chose the sequester.

Although the three preceding House Republican budgets authored by Ryan generally upheld the GOP’s pledge to maintain the U.S. military as the world’s strongest fighting force, it became apparent that the party was willing to consider reductions in strength and global capability to address what it viewed as unsustainable spending that threatened to bankrupt the Treasury.

But late last year, Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, negotiated an end to the sequester with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. And, with his $1.014 trillion fiscal 2015 spending plan set to receive a floor vote this week, Ryan has gone out of his way to emphasize that the House Republican budget would spend significantly more on defense than would the Obama administration’s budget over the next decade.

The numbers are roughly equal in the current fiscal year, with House Republicans and Obama proposing to spend $521 billion, as mandated by the Murray-Ryan compromise adopted earlier this year. Obama actually proposed spending an additional $56 billion through a program called the “Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative.” But their defense proposals diverge in the ensuing years. Ryan would spend $6.2 trillion on the Pentagon through 2024, and Obama would spend $5.9 trillion — a difference of more than $300 billion.

The Washington Examiner asked Ryan about this difference on Tuesday, after he joined the weekly House GOP leadership news conference to tout the virtues of his budget blueprint. Ryan, considered a possible presidential contender in 2016, is set to become House Ways and Means Committee chairman next year.

Washington Examiner: How much of your defense spending figure was related to world events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or China flexing its muscles in the Pacific?

Ryan: We were planning this already. Well, look: We didn’t know how bad his budget would be until he released his budget — I’m talking about the president’s. So that was, candidly, a bit of a shocker. We suspected that he was going to hollow out the military to some degree; we didn’t expect it to be as big as it was. So we were all along planning our budget and these numbers reflect what we were planning all along. I think measured against where the president’s going, there’s a huge gap. And, so it was not a last-minute response. These were numbers we were planning all along. What’s surprising about this is how deeply he cuts the military and it was basically the same week Putin invaded Crimea that he sent this budget to the Hill to hollow out our military. It is bitter irony, if you ask me.

Examiner: Republicans have been more willing in recent years to cut defense spending because of concern for the deficit and the debt.

Ryan: If you look at the first [Obama administration] budget, we then thought there was waste and inefficiency in the Pentagon that needs to be gotten after. We agreed with that and we agreed with that [defense] budget. What has happened since then … [was that] we saw the president change his defense policy — at least publicly, where he moved from what we call a “strategy-driven budget” to a “budget-driven strategy.” … We think the president, near the end of his first term, changed his military budgeting to just fitting a spreadsheet that he had in his mind, not meeting the strategy of the military. And, that’s where we started parting company. And this latest budget round, I think now that he’s a lame duck, I think we’re getting the defense budget that he probably really believes in, and we couldn’t disagree more with his approach to defense.

Examiner: Do you have a greater understanding of defense strategy given your experience running for vice president and what you learned to prepare for the possibility of being elected to that office?

Ryan: Yeah, it’s an issue I’ve always cared a lot about. Being chairman of the Budget Committee, you get a good, deep understanding of all facets of the budget. And, given that our military’s so important, I’ve taken it upon myself to spend a great deal of time in this area — and also preparing for a race like that, you have to think about these things. You have to have the briefings, you have to think about these things. So I’ve given a great deal of thought about America’s place in the world and what kind of foreign policy I believe in. And, so clearly that informs me. But I think that’s in keeping with our tradition as a party as well.

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David M. Drucker

Senior Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner