Paul Ryan explains his votes for TARP, bailouts and tax on AIG bonuses

Jon Ward Contributor
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A recent column in which blogger Matt Lewis questioned the conservative credentials of Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, got a lot of attention on our Web site. A number of Daily Caller readers have commented about Ryan, saying he has cast votes they disagree with, particularly in favor of the $700 billion TARP bailout for Wall Street, the auto bailouts and the taxes on AIG bonuses.

Here’s how Lewis put it:

Though he talks like Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, some of Ryan’s most high-profile votes seem closer to Keynes than to Adam Smith. For example, in the span of about a year, Ryan committed fiscal conservative apostasy on three high-profile votes: The Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP (whereby the government purchased assets and equity from financial institutions), the auto-bailout (which essentially implied he agrees car companies — especially the ones with an auto plant in his district—are too big to fail), and for a confiscatory tax on CEO bonuses (which essentially says the government has the right to take away private property — if it doesn’t like you).

While Ryan’s overall voting record is very conservative, the problem with casting these high-profile votes is that they demonstrate he is willing to fundamentally reject conservatism when the heat is on.

Because it is impossible to believe the highly intelligent and well read Rep. Ryan was unfamiliar with conservative economic principles, one must conclude he either 1). Doesn’t really believe in free market economics, or 2). Was willing to cast bad votes for purely political purposes.

I asked Ryan about these criticisms during a phone interview this week. Here’s what he had to say:

The DC: As you’re getting more attention, besides the criticism that you’re getting from the Democrats, I’ve also started to see some critical comments of you from the right over your votes for TARP, the auto bailout, and the tax on CEO bonuses. How often do you hear that in your home state, how often do you hear it on the Internet, and what do you tell people when they criticize you on those things?

Ryan: You know I don’t hear it here at home that much. You’ve got to remember Obama won my district. Dukakis and Gore won my district. Clinton won my district. So I don’t come from, you know, a red area. So I think it’s important to keep in mind where I come from. I don’t hear that here.

TARP. I’ll take one at a time. I believe we were on the cusp of a deflationary spiral which would have created a Depression. I think that’s probably pretty likely. If we would have allowed that to happen, I think we would have had a big government agenda sweeping through this country so fast that we wouldn’t have recovered from it. So in order to prevent a Depression and a complete evisceration of the free market system we have, I think it was necessary. It wasn’t a fun vote. You don’t get to choose the kind of votes you want. But I just think as far as the long term objectives that I have — which are restoring the principles of this country — I think it was necessary to prevent those principles from being really kind of wiped out for a generation.

Auto. Really clear. The president’s chief of staff [Josh Bolten] made it extremely clear to me before the vote, which is either the auto companies get the money that was put in the Energy Department for them already — a bill that I voted against because I didn’t want to give them that money, which was only within the $25 billion, money that was already expended but not obligated — or the president was going to give them TARP, with no limit. That’s what they told me. That’s what the president’s chief of staff explained to me. I said, ‘Well, I don’t want them to get TARP. We want to keep TARP on a [inaudible]. We don’t want to expand it. So give them that Energy Department money that at least puts them out of TARP, and is limited.’ Well, where are we now? What I feared would happen did happen. The bill failed, and now they’ve got $87 billion from TARP, money we’re not going to get back. And now TARP, as a precedent established by the Bush administration, whereby the Obama administration now has turned this thing into its latest slush fund. And so I voted for that to prevent precisely what has happened, which I feared would happen.

The whole AIG thing, you know that was — you know I obviously regret that one. I was angry at the time because I was worried that all these companies were jumping into TARP thinking they could use TARP as a way to best their competitors, as a way to get cheaper credit, to get money at cheaper rates, at the expense of their smaller competitors. And so I was seeing TARP as sort of a new tool of crony capitalism, and I thought it’d be a good signal to send to the large banks who were jumping into this thing, who really didn’t need it: ‘Stay away from this, don’t get in bed with the government, even though it might in the short term give you a leg up on your competitors, you’ll be burned. That was what was running through my mind at the time, given the fact that we had about six hours notice on the vote, and our lawyers were telling us that it was not a bill of attainder. Now when a week went by, and our lawyers had a chance to read it more clearly and carefully, they reversed their opinion of the bill and said it was in fact a bill of attainder, which therefore should not have passed … The other thing that bothered me was the Democrats were in a real political pinch, because Chris Dodd wrote in the exemption for those bonuses in the bill, and they were on the hook for it. And they were trying to get themselves off the hook and Republicans on the hook. And that bothered me too, was just the political cynicism behind it bothered me and I didn’t want to give the Democrats that as well. So those were the thoughts running through my mind when I had to make more or less the snap judgment on that bill.