House Speaker Paul Ryan was the big winner at a Republican presidential forum on expanding opportunity on Saturday. He moderated the event in Columbia, South Carolina, where most of the seven presidential candidates who attended endorsed central components of his domestic policy agenda.
While anti-establishment candidates, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, did not attend and are not seeking Ryan's endorsement, seven others did and they would covet an endorsement by him. The support of the speaker, who is still popular among the raucous ranks of House Republicans in the infancy of his term, could bring with his endorsement a tremendous amount of political favor. His support could not only influence other critical and influential players, but it could direct millions of dollars to Ryan's preferred candidate as his growing donor pool could follow his lead.
An appeal to him was on full display Saturday. Ryan, who has shown an interest in the issue of poverty since his loss on the 2012 Republican presidential ticket, has encouraged Republicans to remember the poor in their policy discussions and speak with more compassion about the nearly 47 million Americans living in poverty. The candidates, who have rarely mentioned the issue on the campaign trail up until now, not only espoused a softer tone about the poor, but proposed ideas similar to Ryan's, showing him that he would have a partner in the White House. (South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley also attended the forum. She is often touted as a potential vice presidential pick.)
At Saturday’s forum, hosted by the Kemp Foundation, which was founded by Ryan's late mentor and former Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp, was attended by Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson.
One of the central components to addressing poverty were versions of Ryan's proposal to block grant safety net programs, including food stamps, officially called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and welfare, or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.)
In 2014, Ryan, who was head of the House Budget Committee at the time, proposed “Opportunity Grants” that take federal funding for federal safety net programs, repackage it and grant the money to the states for each state to administer the program and set the program’s parameters.
It’s a proposal backed at least by Bush, Carson, Rubio and Kasich.
“Shift all of this back to communities,” Bush said. “The state federal relationship would be focused on outcomes.”
Kasich agrees: “I would ship the whole welfare program back to the states, with guardrails though.”
And Carson, too: “That’s why I think almost, or at least a very large number of federal programs need to be block granted back to the states at 80%.”
While it appeals to Ryan, it’s a controversial proposal that is aggressively opposed by most Democrats.
Rebecca Vallas, director of anti-poverty policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, said block-granting is another way of “slashing federal poverty programs.”
“If you want to eliminate of slash programs, at least be honest about it instead of cloaking it in false, compassionate rhetoric,” Vallas said.
By switching a federal safety-net program to a block grant, the program loses it’s entitlement status, therefore losing the legal requirement for the program to be fully funded. Vallas points to TANF, which was block-granted in 1996 in an agreement between Congressional Republicans and President Bill Clinton. She says block-granting has failed because today only one out of four families living in poverty have access to TANF support compared to two out of three families living in poverty who received benefits before 1996.
Another proposal echoed by the candidates and backed by Ryan is one that has bipartisan support: the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Criminal justice reform was also a popular topic that is also receiving support from both Republicans and Democrats.