House Speaker Paul Ryan is a very frustrated man. His great passion in public life seems to be the destruction of the federal safety net created by the New Deal and the Great Society. But political reality keeps getting in the way. His long-standing support for partial privatization of Social Security is a nonstarter since George W. Bush got burned for broaching it back in 2005. His plans to voucherize Medicare benefits have been rubber-stamped by GOP members of Congress when they were in no position to actually implement them; they’ve gone nowhere after Republicans took over the entire federal government last year.
Ryan’s best shot yet at “entitlement reform” went down in flames with the failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare — and permanently cap Medicaid spending. And when he raised the trial balloon late last year of coming at entitlements under the rubric of “welfare reform,” that hardy race-inflected favorite of conservatives everywhere, Mitch McConnell shut him down almost instantly.
But ever ingenious, at the GOP congressional retreat this week, Ryan tried one more gambit, as Politico reported:
“[T]he Wisconsin Republican is back at it again, repackaging his proposals in hopes of gaining traction on welfare reform.
“During a GOP retreat here in Appalachia, Ryan urged congressional Republicans to tackle ‘workforce development.’ He messaged the somewhat amorphous phrase as a matter of ‘helping people’— not a budget-cutting excursive.”
What Ryan is deploying is a massive bait and switch: Get people talking about beefing up job-training resources for the able-bodied but unemployed or underemployed poor, and then drop the hammer on the entitlement benefits they currently receive. Phase one of that hammer dropping, of course, would be work requirements:
“[A]t least a half-dozen Republicans told POLITICO that Ryan’s proposal could include work requirements for welfare beneficiaries, which could repel senators. Indeed, at least two Senate Republicans said Thursday that they liked the idea in theory — but weren’t sure the upper chamber would ever take it up.”
Ryan is likely counting on support from the White House, given the administration’s cautious moves toward letting states impose work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. But more generally pushing people out of entitlement benefits and into jobs that may or may not exist requires more cover. And that’s where Ryan’s sudden enthusiasm for upgrading the workforce’s skills comes in.
“He emphasized the ‘jobs’ piece of the equation, pointing out that there are 6.6 million people on unemployment and more than 5.8 million open jobs. That skills gap, he said, could be filled by the unemployed population if the government provided the facilities to link the two.”
Here’s the trouble, though: Lawmakers from both parties and at every level of government have struggled for decades to come up with a successful system for job training. The Manpower Training and Development Act of 1962, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973, the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, have all, according to nearly every assessment, largely failed to address the enormous problems for workers caused by automation and globalization.
If Ryan has some brilliant ideas for overhauling this system, we’d all like to hear them. But if talk about job training is just a pretext for cutting benefits, then it’s just the same old same old from the inveterate enemy of the welfare state.