A Republican Plan To Save The Safety Net

Rep. Paul Ryan. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

hide captionWisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan has been hailed as the GOP's next big thing — and he has plans for overhauling Medicare and Social Security.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's ideas are raising hackles on Capitol Hill. Ryan is proposing major changes to Social Security and Medicare, traditionally known as the third rail of American politics: Mess with them, and you'll get a nasty shock.

Ryan tells NPR's Guy Raz that he doesn't think he has a choice. "We have to deal with these entitlements because they're growing themselves into bankruptcy."

The benefits our system guarantees aren't likely to be around later for many of us, Ryan says, so he has a plan.

It would guarantee current levels of benefits for people ages 55 and over, but would change the rules for those younger than 55. They would funnel their Social Security money into a fund managed and guaranteed by the federal government. He also proposes tax credits to allow families to purchase insurance, and vouchers that would replace the current Medicare system.

Ryan is often touted as the Republican with ideas. President Obama praised his road map for deficit reduction from the podium at January's Republican retreat in Baltimore. Ryan has been quoted in the past as admiring the objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand, but, he says, he doesn't believe in a purely laissez-faire system.

"I do believe you have to have a safety net in society," he says. "The problem we have is the safety net itself is going bankrupt. What I do in this bill is repair the holes in the safety net."

Ryan says that while he doesn't want a cradle-to-grave welfare state, his plan will increase Social Security benefits to keep people above the poverty line. However, he adds, "you have to have a system of ownership on top of it, on top of the safety net, that is sustainable and better for the individual."

Ryan has come under sustained attack by Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said his plan is "rehashing the same failed Bush policies." Ryan blames those attacks for the paralysis some see afflicting Congress.

"This is why people in Congress don't take risks," he says. "I'm a big boy; I can handle it. It's fine with me. The problem is, it tells any other member of Congress, 'You better not stick your head above the foxhole with a new idea, because you'll get shot by the other team.' "

No Republican leaders have come out in support of Ryan's road map, but the congressman says that doesn't matter to him. "What I'm trying to do is get a debate going in this country to fix these problems."

He says he doesn't want people to think he has all the ideas. "If I put a plan on the table, my hope is that other Republicans and other Democrats come up with their plans, so we get down to the business of talking about how to solve this problem, versus just pointing fingers."

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