As Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan officially assumes the position of Speaker of the House, third in line to the presidency, millions of Americans are wondering who he is and what he’s all about. How does someone reach the pinnacle of power in Congress at the relatively young age of 45?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’d like to shed some light on my own interaction with now-Speaker Paul Ryan. It was several years ago that Ryan had earned the respect of his colleagues as a deep thinker and a voice to be reckoned with. He was a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee and Chairman of the House Budget Committee. But even though he showed considerable promise at that time, he was by no means a national figure or a household name.
Back then, I was intrigued with Ryan and endeavored to establish a relationship with him. In my line of work as a Public Affairs Consultant, it’s important to establish a dialogue with members of Congress of both parties. Their input can be used effectively in the course of advocating. There was no particular item on the agenda at the time. My only purpose was to introduce myself.
Perhaps ironically, several of my colleagues were with me in Washington at the time, and they were also invited to meet with Ryan. They all politely declined, not realizing then that he would become a prominent national figure in a few short years.
I’ve been following Ryan closely for quite some time, and I recognized that one of his chief objectives is to rein in government spending, and by extension, debt. That’s something we can all appreciate.
At the time, a highly contested Republican budget proposal sought to cut SNAP (food stamps) benefits drastically. It was a huge topic because the national budget was growing exponentially. So when I spoke to him, I decided to engage him in a contrarian conversation. I told him that I’d like to share my own perspective. And while I did not wish to be disrespectful, and I am by no means an expert, on budgetary issues, I felt inclined to bare my soul.
Look, I told him. I understand that you propose to cut SNAP benefits. But there are many communities in my neck of the woods, in Brooklyn, with large families. These are hardworking people who pay considerable tuition and are having a difficult time making ends meet. I explained to him about the burden faced by yeshivah parents, including their inability to even deduct their tuition expenses from their taxes (another important issue). Some of these families depend on their food stamps to put food on the table.
I don’t want to get into the debate of whether SNAP benefits actually hinder one’s ability to pursue a livelihood and eventually upgrade one’s economic status. That’s a conversation for another time. Without getting into the whole topic of why and how these families are on government assistance programs, an entire subject unto itself, I simply explained that the bottom line is that there are young children involved here. And children shouldn’t have to go hungry in this great country.
I also pointed out that if he is concerned about abuse in the system, which of course reaches into billions of dollars, we need only look at the astronomical numbers we are spending on national defense to put things into perspective. There’s plenty of waste in our defense budget as well. If we would eliminate just one unnecessary aircraft carrier from the budget, it would probably equal all the waste in SNAP benefits combined.
Lest the reader take away that I’m not for a strong national defense, this point was for conversational purposes and to make a point, not for practical application.
To my utter amazement, Ryan was seriously listening to me. Here was a man who could have given me his arguments, intimidated me with his knowledge, or decimated my point of view. As I am certainly no expert on the subject, he could have seriously taken me apart.
But he didn’t. Instead, he acted like a perfect gentleman and heard me out.
This was a very unique experience for me. I speak to members of Congress often, and often enough it can be intimidating. It’s as if they are not genuinely interested in recognizing a challenging opinion. Ryan was a totally different breed.
From that conversation, we went on to discuss other matters. He was particularly interested in learning about the distinct traditions of the Ashkenazi vs. the Sephardic Jews. He was intrigued by the different cultures in our community.
It was apparent that Ryan was genuinely moved by how I expressed myself. There is a certain humility in his manner that I find very appealing. He is so engaging and interesting and personable that I remember thinking then — Here is someone who could benefit America greatly with his leadership. I remember upon leaving my encounters with him hoping that we would be hearing big things about him very soon.
Soon enough, he became a national presence when he was selected as Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential running mate in 2012. And now he has been elected by his fellow colleagues as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
There are certain lessons I’ve learned from this episode. First of all, I’ve learned that when we meet someone we never know where that person will end up several years down the road. It’s always prudent to go the extra mile and impart the dynamics of one’s community.
The second lesson I’ve learned is that even if someone is coming from a different perspective and doesn’t agree with us on certain issues, we can still have a civilized conversation. I’m sure Paul Ryan didn’t agree with me during our various little talks. But he was and is very gracious and in fact truly interested in hearing how others look at the issues. He feels it’s important to meet people from different walks of life and to educate himself about differing points of view on key issues.
The purpose of this op-ed is not to engage in an analysis of Paul Ryan and his political positions. Rather, it’s to express my hope that his positive personality will positively affect public policy.
I’d like to congratulate Paul Ryan on his new position. I sincerely hope he will be instrumental in unifying his own party, and in bringing the Republicans and Democrats together to find solutions to our nation’s problems, even if that means making difficult compromises. More often than not, it’s through compromise that the challenges of government are resolved. Based on his track record, he seems able to reach across party lines for the common good. I hope he will be able to succeed in that realm as he steps up to become one of the most powerful officials in elected office.
Ezra Friedlander is CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting firm based in New York City and Washington DC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .