Why Paul Ryan needs to come up with an exit strategy

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)
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House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI)

House Speaker Paul Ryan has an opportunity to make a difference when the dust settles from this unusual election and Congress returns to legislating. To do so, Ryan will have to take a novel approach to wielding the power that comes with being the most senior member of Congress. Instead of husbanding his political capital in an attempt to maintain his speakership for as long as he can, Ryan actually needs to do the exact opposite — expend such capital rapidly and work himself out of his current job as expeditiously as possible.

Unlike his predecessors, Ryan does not necessarily view the speakership as the capstone of his career. It is no secret that the relatively young speaker harbors higher political ambitions that could carry him to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. To stand a chance of realizing those ambitions though, Ryan has to first score some legacy-worthy accomplishments that allow him to relinquish the speaker's gavel on his own terms.

Ryan has long chased two of the most elusive policy unicorns in Washington — entitlement reform and comprehensive tax reform. Yet as Ryan himself has admitted in recent public remarks, entitlement reform will remain out of reach next year if the Democrats win the Senate and White House and the ongoing legislative gridlock remains intact. Even if Ryan is able to agree with his Democratic counterparts on some poverty reform package, those modest changes will be insufficient for Ryan to declare victory and return to the Badger State to ready a presidential run.

And truly comprehensive tax reform is also out of play as long as Republicans want to lower individual rates while Democrats want to raise them. There is, however, enough bipartisan support for the more discrete but still meaningful goal of corporate tax reform — if Ryan is willing to push his political chips all-in.

The right players will fall into place to achieve corporate tax reform as a result of the post-election power dynamics. Senator Chuck Schumer, with whom Ryan developed a strong rapport when the two sought an international tax reform agreement last year, is the heir apparent to become the Senate majority leader, Ryan's mirror image in the upper chamber. Meanwhile, Senator Ron Wyden, who lacks the full trust of his fellow Democrats due to his independent streak and willingness to cut a deal, will take over the Senate Finance Committee chairmanship. In his own chamber, Ryan's hand-picked successor on the Ways and Means Committee, Representative Kevin Brady, will remain in that pivotal role.

"Ryan can follow the well-tread path of most of his predecessors with little to show for it other than longevity. Or he can blaze a new trail and demonstrate that length of service is not a prerequisite to leave a legacy. This fateful choice is his to make."

There are clear policy differences between Ryan and Brady, on the one hand, and Schumer and Wyden, on the other, but they are not irreconcilable. The Republican leaders prioritize a transition to a territorial corporate tax framework with a lower top-line tax rate and the inclusion of pass-through entities. Their Democratic counterparts will have a difference of opinion with respect to what the top-line rate should be and how to avoid the potential for gaming the new rules for pass-through entities, and will further demand that a portion of the revenue raised from the deemed repatriation of the estimated $2.5 trillion of corporate profits parked overseas be used for infrastructure spending.

If these four men were left in a room to strike a deal within these parameters, it could be done in quick order. The real political slog will be garnering enough support from their respective rank-and-file members, particularly in Ryan's case. While the GOP will maintain its majority in the House next year, its margin of majority will likely be ten to twenty seats less as a result of next month's elections, and the center of gravity will move further to the right. Ryan's brief honeymoon period with the Freedom Caucus, a group of ultra-conservative House Republicans, is over.

Ryan also faces a series of showdowns in the coming year over familiar issues like the debt limit. If he simply plays defense, he will inevitably suffer a political death of a thousand cuts at the hands of the most strident members of his conference, just as John Boehner did.

The path out of this morass is for Ryan to play offense from the start and to keep his aim on a laudable, yet achievable goal. There is an 18-month window of opportunity to get corporate tax reform done before mid-term election politics intercede. Ryan must be willing to part ways with those within the House GOP who oppose any form of compromise while staying true to his core principles and priorities.

Ryan can follow the well-tread path of most of his predecessors with little to show for it other than longevity. Or he can blaze a new trail and demonstrate that length of service is not a prerequisite to leave a legacy. This fateful choice is his to make.

Commentary by Stephen A. Myrow, managing partner of Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, DC. He has served in various government roles, including as a senior Treasury Department official in 2008-2009. Follow him on Twitter @smyrow.

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