Speaker of the House of Representatives: Who Is Paul Ryan?

Monday, April 17, 2017
Paul Ryan

A member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1999, Paul Davis Ryan Jr. (R-Wisconsin) was elected Speaker of the House on October 29, 2015. The House, along with the U.S. Senate, comprise the legislative branch of the federal government. The House is made up of 435 members and provides state representation based on population. Its primary duty is to adopt legislation that changes federal law. The speaker is the presiding officer of the House and second in line of succession to the presidency after the vice president.


Ryan was born on January 29, 1970 in Janesville, Wisconsin. He was the youngest of four children born to Paul Davis Ryan, a lawyer, and Elizabeth A. “Betty” Ryan, an interior designer. Ryan Jr.’s grandfather, Stanley M. Ryan, was 28 years old when he was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge as a U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin.


Ryan and his siblings grew up in Janesville’s historic Courthouse Hill district. He attended St. Mary's Catholic School and Joseph A. Craig High School, where he got an early taste of politics when he was elected president of his junior class, which qualified him to also serve as student body representative on the school board. Nicknamed “P.D.” by his friends (often mistaken as “Petey,” which annoyed him), Ryan had the distinction of being voted by fellow students as “biggest brown-noser” of the class of 1988, a moniker that followed him into the school yearbook. Outside of school, he earned money performing odd jobs such as mowing lawns, painting houses, landscaping, and working as a summer counselor at YMCA’s Camp Manito-wish. After his second year at Craig, he landed a job at McDonald’s, flipping burgers on the grill.


Then one day in 1986, at age 16, he discovered his father in his bed, dead from a heart attack, just as his father had found his own father dead from a heart attack. The traumatic event forced young Paul to grow up quickly, making him caregiver to his ailing 80-year-old grandmother who moved into the family home after his two oldest siblings had moved out and his mother returned to school. For the next two years, Ryan collected Social Security survivor benefits, which he applied toward the cost of his education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he enrolled in 1988. “I came to Oxford after a very difficult high school experience in which I lost my father,” Ryan recalled in a 2009 commencement speech at the college. “It was here at Miami where I was able to find myself. I found a sense of direction, and a sense of identity.”


Supporting that search was a mentor of sorts, libertarian professor Richard Hart, who introduced Ryan to the conservative magazine, National Review, and the philosophies of economist Milton Friedman and Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand. He has used Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged as Christmas gifts and made Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, as well as the writings of economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, required reading for staffers and interns at his congressional office. It is Rand’s writings that Ryan has credited for his involvement in public service. As Ryan’s political career progressed, he was faced with the awkward details of Rand’s philosophy, such as the fact that Rand was against religion and supported abortion. In August 2012, he told The New Yorker, “I reject her philosophy. It's an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview.”


It was at Richard Hart’s suggestion that Ryan undertook an internship at the office of Sen. Bob Kasten (R-Wisconsin).


During summer break from his courses at Miami, Ryan worked as a salesman for Oscar Meyer in Minnesota, promoting its latest food line at local grocery stores and even once commandeering the company’s iconic Wienermobile. A member of the College Republicans, he also served as a volunteer on Ohio Republican John Boehner’s 1990 campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.


Ryan later recalled that his dream had been to attend the University of Chicago, where Milton Friedman had taught, and follow in Friedman’s footsteps to become an economist. But, he told the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel in 2009, “I just kept getting really interesting jobs.”


In 1992, after earning his bachelor’s degree at Miami, Ryan participated in American University’s Washington Semester program and, at his mother’s urging, took a position as a legislative aide in Kasten’s office, where he worked his way from the mail room to the Senate small business committee’s policy staff. He supplemented his income with such odd jobs as fitness trainer at Washington Sport and Health Club and waiter at the Tortilla Coast restaurant.


Suddenly out of a job after Kasten lost his reelection bid in November 1992, Ryan, a few months later, landed a gig as speechwriter for Empower America (now FreedomWorks), a conservative think tank co-founded by a close colleague of Kasten’s, former U.S. congressman Jack Kemp, who was at that time secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Ryan subsequently became a speechwriter for Kemp himself, who went on to become the Republican vice presidential candidate in the 1996 election. “Jack had a huge influence on me, his brand of inclusive conservatism, his pro-growth, happy-warrior style. That was infectious to me,” Ryan told the Sentinel in 2009.


In 1995, Ryan served as legislative director for then-Rep. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) who, in 1996, became a U.S. senator. That would prove to be Ryan’s last D.C. staff job; in 1997 he returned to his home state of Wisconsin to work as a marketing consultant for Ryan Incorporated Central, a family-owned construction business.


Ryan first ran for public office in 1998 and, with his win at age 28, became the second-youngest member of the House of Representatives, representing Wisconsin's Congressional District 1. Early on, he drove a truck that doubled as an office. In later years, he served as chairman of the House Budget Committee (2011 to 2015) and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (2015). Rated by University of California at San Diego’s Keith T. Poole as the 39th most conservative member of the House during the 110th Congress, Ryan has received top ratings from the National Rifle Association and anti-abortion groups. He was reelected nine times as Republican representative of Wisconsin, the most recent being in the 2016 election. In 2011, he was named as one of the 10 House members most helped by state redistricting, controlled primarily by Republicans, according to an analysis published by The Hill. During his years as a lawmaker, he was the primary sponsor of more than 70 bills or amendments, two of which became law, and the co-sponsor of 975 bills, of which 176 passed.


In August 2012, Ryan was selected as U.S. presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate. “Ryan is the most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential slot since at least 1900,” wrote then-New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blogger and statistician Nate Silver in an analysis conducted that year. “[He] is also more conservative than any Democratic nominee [for vice president who previously served in the Congress] was liberal, meaning that he is the furthest from the center [of any vice presidential candidate selected from Congress since the turn of the 20th century].” Republicans Romney and Ryan lost the election to their Democratic opponents, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who were reelected in a 51% to 47% voting outcome. Ryan retained his seat in the House.


In October 2015, John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker of the House eventually led to an effort by House Republicans—seeking a unifying force for their fractured membership—to recruit Ryan as his replacement. Ryan initially declined, but reversed himself after meeting with members of different GOP factions who assured him of unified support under his leadership. On October 29, he was elected to the position with 236 votes, making him, at age 45, the youngest Speaker in 140 years.


Ryan’s 2016 campaign for reelection to his congressional seat was marked by a running thread of discord between himself and then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. For months, Ryan walked a fine line, publicly distancing himself from Trump’s controversial and often offensive statements, while continuing to maintain lukewarm support for his presidential run in order to avoid rocking the boat with various factions of Republican voters and congressional representatives. He voiced opposition to Trump’s proposal for a Muslim ban, saying, “This is a war with radical Islam. It's not a war with Islam. Muslims are our partners. The vast, vast majority of Muslims around this country and around the world are moderate. They're peaceful, they're tolerant.”


Trump’s citing of a federal judge’s Mexican heritage as the basis for an attack on the judge prompted Ryan to criticize it as a “textbook definition of a racist comment,” yet he refused to withdraw his support for Trump. Even after the October release of the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” video, featuring Trump’s crude comments about his groping of women, Ryan wouldn’t withdraw his endorsement of Trump, although he did redirect active support away from Trump in favor of down-ticket candidates.  For his part, Trump attacked Ryan viciously, accusing him of being “disloyal” and part of “a whole sinister deal,” even making a veiled threat to Ryan’s hold on the House speakership once Trump became president.


On election eve, Ryan declared that “the GOP is not [Trump’s] party.” The next day, Ryan, ecstatic over the unexpected GOP takeover of both the executive and legislative branches, said, “This is the most incredible political feat I have seen in my lifetime. …Donald Trump heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard….He connected in ways with people no one else did. He turned politics on its head. And now, Donald Trump will lead a unified Republican government.”


Trump’s earlier threat against Ryan’s speakership nearly took form in March 2017 when Ryan’s hold on the job was momentarily put into question following the failure of Trump and the Republican-majority House, led by Ryan, to make good on their longtime promise to “repeal and replace Obamacare” with their own hastily assembled American Health Care Act. Because of Ryan’s inability to corral resistant GOP moderates and conservatives, and Trump’s failure to use his heavily touted negotiating skills to “close the deal,” the bill was taken off the table at the 11th hour because it lacked the votes to pass. Ryan conceded, “Obamacare is the law of the land. It’s going to remain the law of the land until it’s replaced.” In spite of much finger-pointing, Ryan appeared to retain the support of Trump and fellow Republicans, although all concerned, including Ryan, took a political hit.


Ryan is an avid hunter and fisherman. His wife Janna is a former tax attorney and corporate lobbyist who comes from a Democratic family, and has lobbied for liberal causes. The couple has a daughter, Liz, and two sons, Charlie and Sam.

-Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

It’s Time for Paul Ryan to Quit as House Speaker (by Darrell Delamaide, MarketWatch)

Speaker Ryan's “Strange Bedfellows” Partnership with Trump (60 Minutes, CBS)

Paul Ryan Reading Guide: The Best Reporting on the House Republican (ProPublica)

Despite Working-Class Image, Ryan Comes from Family of Wealth (by Ralph Vartabedian, Richard A. Serrano and Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times)

Conservative Star’s Small-Town Roots (by Jennifer Steinhauer, Jim Rutenberg, Mike McIntire and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times)

An Hour with Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan (video—Charlie Rose, PBS)

Paul Ryan on C-SPAN (videos)


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