GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
This week, President Obama's health plan is expected to reach Congress for a final vote, and not a single Republican is expected to back the plan.
Now, Democrats accuse Republicans of simply trying to thwart the President's agenda without offering any serious alternatives. Here's Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): The party of no has shown no interest in sitting down with us at the negotiating table. The party of no has shown no interest in legislating.
RAZ: But if there's one Republican who Democrats can't accuse of having no ideas, it's Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. And earlier this year, when the president met with congressional Republicans in Baltimore, he pointed to Paul Ryan's plan to tackle the growing costs of entitlement spending.
President BARACK OBAMA: I think Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal. I've read it. I can tell you what's in it. And there are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there's some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about because I don't agree with.
RAZ: Paul Ryan is the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, and he's a rising star in his party. He's written a plan called "The Roadmap for America's Future," and in it, he outlines his proposals to reform Medicare, Social Security and taxes.
Now, very few Republicans publicly back his plan. It's controversial, even a little radical. And when I sat down with Paul Ryan on Friday, he explained why he's taking on the third rail of American politics.
Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): I'm doing it because we don't have a choice. We have to deal with these entitlements because they're growing themselves into bankruptcy. Medicare goes bankrupt in seven years. And what I ask my colleagues in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, is this: what if we knew about the last financial crisis - which happened in October 2008 - what if we knew about it well enough in advance to prevent it from happening, but we just chose not to do so because it just wasn't politically popular?
That's just not right. That's unconscionable in my mind. And so that is why I think the American people are ready to be talked to like adults and not like children. I think all the demagoguery that both parties have committed against each other has got to stop. Otherwise, we're going to wind up with our own version of a debt crisis.
RAZ: It's interesting because we've spoken to Congressman Henry Waxman about climate change and he makes a very, very similar argument. I mean, he says, imagine if we didn't do what we know we should be doing.
Rep. RYAN: Look, put the science of climate change aside and all of those things, no one disputes that we have a crisis coming with our entitlements. No one disputes we have a debt crisis coming in this country.
RAZ: We're in trouble.
Rep. RYAN: We're in trouble. The sooner you act to fix this problem, the better off everybody is going to be.
RAZ: If I understand your Social Security plan correctly, people currently under the age of 55 would be allowed to divert part of their Social Security taxes to a fund.
Rep. RYAN: Right.
RAZ: That would be managed and guaranteed.
Rep. RYAN: Right, by Social Security.
RAZ: By the federal government.
Rep. RYAN: Yes, so it's exactly what I have as a member of Congress...
RAZ: But how is that an improvement on the current system?
Rep. RYAN: It is giving people an option. First of all, if you're above 55, nothing changes. If you're under 55, you can choose to stay in the traditional program if you want to, or like you said, a third of your payroll taxes can go to a plan managed by Social Security exactly how my thrift-savings plan as a member of Congress is managed.
The reason why it's an improvement is it's a better deal for you. At my age I'm 40 I'm looking at about a one percent rate of return on my payroll taxes if Social Security could give me my benefit, which it can't. My three kids, who are five, six and eight, are looking at about a negative one percent rate of return on their Social Security taxes.
And when 80 percent of American pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes, you would think we'd want to get a better rate of return for our money. So you can get better benefits if you do this, but more importantly, I'm simply saying to people: if you want it, you can have it. You don't even have to do this. It's an additional choice, an option to have a plan like I have a congressman for my retirement.
RAZ: But if you were to oppose, say for example, a government-run health plan, why would you support a government-run Social Security plan? Why not just privatize it?
Rep. RYAN: So I think it's important to have a safety net in this country, so that nobody's in poverty in old age, so that people who get sick get the care they need, but on top of that, you can't have a cradle-to-grave welfare kind of state that bankrupts of our government. You have to have a system of ownership on top of it that is sustainable and better for the individual.
And so, I will disagree with some on the right that says we should have a complete laissez faire system, where it's everybody out for themselves. I do believe there is a social compact in this country that we have reached consensus on, which I agree with, which is that there should be a sturdy safety net in this nation to help those who cannot help themselves.
RAZ: I want to ask you about that consensus because in your plan, your "Roadmap for America's Future," you acknowledge that Social Security and Medicare are important parts...
Rep. RYAN: Very important.
RAZ: ...of retirement security.
Rep. RYAN: I agree with that.
RAZ: I'm wondering if those proposals were introduced today, honestly, do you think you would back them, or do you think most Republicans would back them?
Rep. RYAN: I would do them differently. I do think Republicans would support these kinds of things, and the reason I feel confident in saying that because I'm a Republican, and I'm working with other Republicans to do these kinds of things.
So I would clearly create these entitlements differently. You know why? Because these entitlements have a $76 trillion unfunded liability, $76 trillion in promises to the generations that we have here, my mom's generation, my generation, my kids' generation, that cannot be kept. So these programs have to be reformed if we're going to avoid bankruptcy.
RAZ: Congressman Ryan, you have been singled out by President Obama. Many Democrats have called you the only Republican with serious ideas, even though they acknowledge they disagree with them.
Rep. RYAN: Sure.
RAZ: But I'm more interested in asking you about your own party. Not one member of the Republican leadership has publicly endorsed your roadmap, and I'm wondering why you think that is.
Rep. RYAN: You know, it doesn't really matter me. I never...
RAZ: But don't you need their support to in order...
Rep. RYAN: Ultimately, but what I'm trying to do is get a debate going in this country to fix these problems. The way I look at this is both parties are ducking the responsibility for fixing these problems. They do so because they have political fear that the other side will lynch them in the next election.
I'm not trying to say that I, Paul Ryan, have all the answers, and here is the plan from on high. What I wanted to do is: here's how I would fix our fiscal situation, and I'm trying to get other people to come with their plans. So if I put a plan on the table, my hope was 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 and going faster and faster toward a bankrupt nation.
RAZ: Going back to this issue of President Obama, do you think that sort of getting a kind of let's just say a back-door endorsement from the president and from Democrats helps you or not?
Rep. RYAN: Well, it's obviously...
RAZ: I mean, did you sort of feel like the teacher's pet in that room, when the president singled you out, or were you proud?
Rep. RYAN: It surprised me. It was I did not see that coming. I had my six-year-old in my lap, and I was just kind of enjoying this conversation, and it sort of just kind of came out nowhere. It brought with it a lot of attention, and then what I realized, it was two days after the president did that, I had all these attacks coming from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee...
RAZ: Well, they were looking for holes in your proposal.
Rep. RYAN: Well, you know, the day and a half after the budget director started attacking my plan, the day after that, they started launching political attacks.
Now, I don't think that that was necessarily the president's intention, but that was clearly what the political people in the Democratic Party chose to do. And, look, this is why people in Congress don't take risks.
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 party. And my point is, if we don't tackle this problem soon, it's going to get us.
RAZ: Congressman Paul Ryan is the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee and the author of a plan he calls "The Roadmap for America's Future." Paul Ryan, thank you so much.
Rep. RYAN: You bet, thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.