Paul Ryan Plays Politics With the Family Business
Tammy Ingram is an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston. She is currently writing a book about the Dixie Highway.
Construction work on I-55 in Mississippi, 1972. Credit: Environmental Protection Agency.
The Republican National Convention’s focus on President Obama’s now (in)famous “you didn’t build that” speech came as no surprise. As soon as Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan to be his running mate on August 11, the focus of partisan conflict shifted noticeably away from hot button issues like gay marriage to debates over federal spending.
Transportation is front and center in these debates. Ryan’s near-consistent record of voting against infrastructure projects since Obama took office, like his dogged opposition to the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the 2010 Affordable Care Act, has made him a favorite among Tea Party activists and boosted the Republican ticket’s credibility among libertarian voters.
But as Ryan’s position on some of these very issues has come under increasing scrutiny, it has exposed the Romney-Ryan campaign to accusations of hypocrisy. Fox News contributor Sally Kohn called out both Romney and Ryan for mocking President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech while ignoring the fact that the century-old Ryan family business (Ryan, Inc.) built its fortune on federal transportation subsidies and defense contracts. On August 16, the Boston Globe reported that Ryan had contacted two separate federal agencies on at least five different occasions to ask for federal stimulus money, despite having been one of the most vociferous opponents of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And MSNBC host Chris Hayes recently criticized Ryan for embracing a “sink or swim” philosophy while ignoring his own cozy and deep-rooted dependence on all kinds of federal aid, including Social Security, which helped to pay for Ryan’s college education after the tragic death of his father. As for his voting record on transportation bills, a close look reveals that he was far more receptive to federal spending for transportation initiatives under George W. Bush, especially when they benefited his own constituents.
Ryan’s position embodies what one author has called -- uncynically -- “libertarianism with benefits”: Taking advantage of federal spending while at the same time protesting against it.
While leftist pundits make hash of it, Ryan’s position is neither hypocritical nor contradictory to modern conservatives. Although they benefit from some of the priciest of taxpayer-funded federal aid -- be it highways, public utilities, Medicare, or, one might even argue, defense spending -- they see no incompatibility with Tea Party-driven efforts to dramatically limit government spending. Ryan himself has complained about efforts on the left to create a “false dichotomy” by portraying fiscal conservatives as “bizarre individualists” and “hardcore libertarians.” “Of course we believe in government,” he said. “We think government should do what it does really well, but that it has limits, and obviously within those limits are things like infrastructure, interstate highways, and airports,” the very things for which Ryan’s family has received millions in federal contracts.
In many ways, both the critiques of Ryan’s position and his defense of it obscure significant shifts in thinking about government spending over the past century, shifts that Ryan’s own selective voting record on transportation bills reflects quite well.
Ryan’s great-grandfather started the family business by building railroads, which were subsidized by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal land grants. When highways began supplanting railroads in the early twentieth century, the Ryans adapted as well, and the business continued to grow and expand thanks to federal spending.
Unlike modern conservatives, however, big contractors like Ryan, Inc. did not pretend to be passive beneficiaries of federal aid.
Building contractors lobbied hard for federal highway aid. They were among the most influential members of highway lobbying organizations such as the American Road Makers Association (ARMA) and memorial highway, or “marked trails,” associations. Some of the most active supporters of the Progressive-era Good Roads Movement, in fact, were contractors, cement companies, and of course automakers and oil companies. In 1916, their tireless lobbying helped to persuade Congress to pass the first federal aid road bill. They continued to support increases in funding for the federal aid system for forty years until 1956, when Congress approved the single largest public works project in the nation’s history: the modern interstate highway system.
But it wasn’t always that way. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Congress blocked dozens of proposals for federal funding for public roads and highways. Thomas Jefferson famously complained that building roads would “open a bottomless abyss for public money.” Even after federal money for post roads and major farm-to-market routes began trickling in in the early twentieth century -- by the thousands, not the tens of millions ARMA lobbyists wanted -- conservatives in Congress complained that large federal subsidies for roads would create an unnecessary “drain” upon the federal treasury.
Due to the persistence of these kinds of ideas, the Ryan family and other contractors who successfully shifted from railroad-building to highway-building had to retool more than just their business models in order to remain afloat. Channeling federal railroad aid through land grants had allowed the government to remain, in the words of historian Brian Balogh, “out of sight,” thereby preserving the popular notion of small, fiscally conservative government while subsidizing the construction of a massive, privately owned transportation system to the tune of $500 million. But in order to push for federal highway aid, highway contractors, auto industrialists, and like-minded capitalists had to embrace Progressive-era thinking about government intervention, thinking that put them in direct conflict with more traditional, strict constructionist ideas about the size and scope of federal power. By supporting vast increases in federal transportation funding, contractors were actually challenging conservatives who believed the federal government could not, and should not, pay for highway construction.
In many ways, Paul Ryan’s position is more like that of early twentieth-century Progressives -- who were quite conservative, themselves -- than with the hard-line Tea Party activists or the Founding Fathers whom they so often evoke. In fact, earlier this year Tea Party influence shaped contentious debates over a new transportation bill to replace the one that expired in 2009. When Congress finally passed a $120 billion bill in June, a representative for the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense denounced it as “a massive Treasury bailout of the transportation system.” But Paul Ryan voted for it.
The difference is this: A century ago, big businesses like Ryan, Inc. acknowledged that they had a stake in massive federal spending for public works. Their vocal support for federal transportation aid helped to transform it into an established principal, and one that most conservatives today do not reject. But as influential members of a fairly mainstream reform movement, they stood in stark contrast to Paul Ryan’s role as fiscal watchdog for the Tea Party, a role that only works because he is part of such a small minority. Unlike conservative reformers of a century ago, Ryan can play politics with select highway or mass transit bills when it suits him, knowing full well that he and his constituents will still receive federal aid for some of those very same things. He can thank the family business for that.
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