Rating Ryan: How good a congressman?

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, September 9, 2012

How do you rate your congressman?

In the case of Paul Ryan, the answer likely comes down to your political preferences and whether you've ever interacted with him.

The vice-presidential candidate also is running to keep his seat as the representative of Wisconsin's 1st District.

Political scientists rate a legislator's performance on service and policy, said Barry Burden, a UW-Madison political science professor.

Service includes how much time the legislator spends in his district and how he responds to constituents' individual problems, Burden said.

Service could include government benefits the legislator secured for his district, Burden said.

However, if a legislator is ideologically opposed to pork-barrel projects, he might be rated on how few times he has advocated for government spending in his district, Burden suggested.

Ryan, who is running for his eighth term in the House of Representatives, is a budget hawk who has opposed pork-barrel spending and has worked to give the president a line-item veto, which is one of the things he and President Barack Obama agree on.


An unemployed Janesville woman wrote to The Gazette in 2010 to praise Paul Ryan.

The woman had lost her husband of 37 years.

"He was a disabled Marine Corps combat veteran of Vietnam. In order to receive his final monthly disability check, I had to apply through the Veterans Administration, and was told I would get it in one to two months," she wrote.

Two months later, no check and news that there was a six-month backlog.

Like many who have trouble with the federal bureaucracy, she contacted her congressman's office. She filled out a form and quickly got her check, she wrote.

"From what I read, hear and see, Congressman Ryan truly fights for his constituents," she wrote.

That's a classic tale of constituent service. It's the bread and butter of any congressman, and it appears Ryan's staff has done it well.

Ryan posts eight of his 14 staff members in the 1st District, according to spokeswoman Smythe Anderson, so it would appear constituent service is important to him.

Anderson said Ryan's office handled more than 45,000 constituent requests in his first 13 years in Congress, or about 3,400 requests a year, more than nine each day.


Whether every constituent who brought a problem to Ryan's office was as pleased as the Janesville widow is impossible to know.

But that's just one way to measure the service of a member of Congress.

Accessibility is another. Anderson said Ryan has spoken to constituents at more than 550 "town hall meetings" in the district, including six last May.

Some have complained, however, that Ryan spends much of his time at these meetings talking with charts about the country's fiscal problems rather than listening.

Ryan's interviews with 1st District journalists also make him accessible to district residents, Anderson said.

Ryan's congressional campaign spokesman did not respond to Gazette questions about how he has served his constituents.

Bridges to somewhere

Ryan's Democratic congressional opponent, Rob Zerban of Kenosha, was asked for his opinion of Ryan's service over 13-plus years in Congress. Zerban's spokesman came up with one gripe.

"Time and again, Paul Ryan has put his own political ambitions ahead of the needs of our district. There's just no way for him to defend voting in favor of the Bridge to Nowhere while failing to fix 15 structurally deficient bridges and highways here in southeast Wisconsin," wrote Zerban spokesman Karthik Ganapathy.

The so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska was projected to cost $398 million to serve 50 island residents.

Ganapathy provided a map from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, showing 15 "structurally deficient bridges" on the Interstate system in the 1st District.

All those bridges have been repaired since 2010, or they are scheduled for maintenance, repair or replacement, according to William Oliva of the state Department of Transportation.

"Structurally deficient" bridges are safe, and they are monitored, Oliva said.

Ganapathy did not respond to an email about Oliva's information.

Policy to the right

"In terms of policy, the question is whether the legislator voted in a way and pushed for legislation that constituents preferred," Burden said.

The district has become more Republican over two redistrictings since Ryan began representing it in 1998, but it retains its union-blue collar roots and is considered a swing district.

The district went for George W. Bush by 53 percent in the 2004 presidential election. Then the district went blue in 2008, preferring Obama by an even narrower margin, 51.4 percent.

Ryan appears to be more conservative than his district. He is, in fact, the most conservative presidential running mate since 1900, more conservative than Dick Cheney and his former mentor, Jack Kemp, according to a rating system used by political scientists called DW-NOMINATE.

"There are some problems in making comparisons over this lengthy period of time because the issues were so different in the early 20th century, but it is still interesting," said UW-Madison political science professor David Canon.

If the district is split about 50-50, should Ryan be aiming for the political center? Or should he do what he thinks is right and let the voters decide? Ryan appears to have chosen the latter.

Another rating scale, by the National Journal, rates Ryan as more conservative than 68 percent of the House of Representatives.

The National Journal ratings peg Ryan as most conservative on social issues, placing him as more conservative than 74 percent of the House. On economic policy, he is more conservative than 66 percent, and of foreign policy, 57 percent.

Ryan calls it "principled representation." He says the nation is at risk because of its debt and budget deficits, and he has spent most of his career trying to change the government's fiscal course, even going so far as to say that both Democratic and Republican administrations are to blame.

Ryan seems to be pleasing his constituents, as they have returned him to Congress with sizeable majorities since 2000. But some say that's because the Democrats failed to mount credible campaigns.

Bringing the bacon

Congressmen often are rated on how many federal dollars they can funnel into their districts. But Ryan has crusaded against pork-barrel politics. He says on his website that the House Republicans imposed a ban on earmarking spending in 2009-10, and they expanded that to the whole house when they took the majority in 2011.

But Ryan has not always been averse to voting for measures that send money to his district. Ryan's own press release in 2005 talks of how he voted for the $711.9 million Transportation Equity Act, which included projects Ryan said he requested for his district.

Those projects included $12.8 million for work on Interstate 94, Highway 11 at Burlington and Interstate 43 in Rock County, as well as preliminary engineering funding for Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail and a Kenosha streetcar expansion.


Ryan also worked on the committee that tried to get General Motors to keep producing vehicles at its Janesville plant, according to another committee member and Democrat Tim Cullen.

Cullen said Ryan was a tireless, behind-the-scenes worker for GM.

Cullen also said Ryan worked with him in the early 2000s to get the government to locate a Medicare call center with 400 jobs in Janesville.

Both efforts failed, but Ryan worked hard on them and did not seek publicity for his efforts, Cullen said.

A spokesman did not respond to a request for examples of Ryan's successes on behalf of the district's economy.

The Washington Post recently reported that Ryan urged the Transportation Department to consider the city of Janesville's request for $3.8 million, which would help build a new city transit center.

Ryan had secured $735,000 for the same project in 2008, the Post reported.

Last updated: 4:40 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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