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By Alex Moe and Rebecca Shabad
WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan, in his farewell address to Congress on Wednesday, urged a more civil tone in the nation’s discourse and said the difficult problems facing the country “are solvable if our politics will allow it.”
“As I look ahead to the future, this much I know: Our complex problems are solvable,” the Wisconsin Republican said in his speech. “That is to say, our problems are solvable if our politics will allow it.”
From congressional intern to speaker of the House, Ryan, 48, has experienced almost every aspect of Capitol Hill. He announced in April that he would retire this year after serving three years as the top House Republican, passing the mantle to California Republican Kevin McCarthy when the first session of a new Congress convenes with Democrats in control of the chamber.
“Certainly one Congress cannot solve all that ails us. Not every outcome has been perfect,” Ryan said Wednesday in a speech that touted his achievements but also touched on where he thought he fell short. “I am darn proud of what we have achieved together to make this a stronger and more prosperous country.”
Ryan delivered the address at the Library of Congress, capping 20 years in Congress before colleagues, former staffers, and friends, including former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.
He acknowledged major policy areas where he was unable to affect the change he wanted: Overhauling federal benefit programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and addressing the growing debt and deficit.
“I acknowledge plainly that my ambitions for entitlement reform have outpaced the political reality and I consider this our greatest unfinished business,” he said Wednesday.
Earlier this year, he had said as much in an interview with C-SPAN, expressing regret that “we have yet to reach bipartisan consensus on comprehensive entitlement reform when all of us know that this is necessary to get our debt and deficit under control.”
In 2017, Republicans in Congress passed a massive tax cut — an issue Ryan championed during his two-decade career on Capitol Hill, and one of his key achievement as speaker. But those cuts will add $1.9 trillion to the debt, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
On Wednesday, Ryan said federal health care spending “remains the principle driver of entitlement spending.”
“Ultimately, solving this problem will require a greater degree of political will than exists today. I regret that,” he said.
Ryan was selected as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012. Though they lost, Ryan’s standing in the party grew, becoming a leading voice on Capitol Hill.
The self-described policy wonk said for years his dream job was to be chairman of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. It was a position he finally attained in January 2015, but he held it for less than a year before he was drafted to become speaker after it became apparent that there was no other Republican who could garner enough support to replace retiring Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
While Ryan was reluctant to take the top spot in the House given concerns of traveling and being away from his young family, he said that he grew to appreciate the position.
“I knew when I took this job, I would become a polarizing figure. It comes with the territory,” Ryan said on Wednesday. “But one thing I leave most proud of is that I like to think I am the same person now that I was when I arrived.”
Though Ryan was able to pass Obamacare repeals through the House, that effort ultimately failed in the GOP-controlled Senate last year. He was also unable to help bridge the divide between moderates and conservatives during immigration negotiations earlier this year to strike a deal over border wall funding and find a legislative solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Obama-era initiative that has allowed 700,000 young people, known as “Dreamers,” to avoid deportation.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s relationship with President Donald Trump has been a complicated one.
While some have criticized the speaker for not standing up to the president, Ryan has said he prefers to tell Trump his opinions in private and doesn’t find it productive to wage a fight in front of the media.
He said in an interview with The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich in August that he was able to avoid “tragedy” while working with Trump.
“I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day and say I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy, I avoided that tragedy,” Ryan said. “I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal, I advanced this goal.”
Ryan’s relationship with Trump was not always hidden behind closed doors. In October 2016, when Trump was the GOP’s presidential nominee and the Access Hollywood video footage surfaced of Trump making lewd comments about women, Ryan was furious, saying he was “sickened” by the remarks.
“Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified,” Ryan said in a statement at the time. “I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests. In the meantime, he is no longer attending tomorrow’s event in Wisconsin.”
Ryan didn’t mention Trump by name in his farewell address Wednesday, but did caution against allowing “genuine disagreement” to give way to “intense distrust.”
“All of this gets amplified by technology, with an incentive structure that preys on people’s fears, and algorithms that play on anger. Outrage is a brand,” Ryan warned.
It is still not clear what life after Congress will look like — although he said recently he plans to “hunt a lot.”
“I won’t divorce myself from politics and policy, I’m just going to not be in Congress anymore,” Ryan said in September in an interview with WisPolitics. “Because I’m a cause guy, I’m gonna be working on the causes I care about in some other capacity.”