Introducing: 60 Minutes All Access Learn More +
Unlimited, ad-free viewing of 60 Minutes archives, Overtime and extras
Toggle

The Speaker of the House

Newly-elected Speaker Paul Ryan discusses his plans for the job he almost turned down and says a true political leader is one who takes risks

The following is a script from "The Speaker of the House" which aired on Nov. 15, 2015. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Robert G. Anderson and Aaron Weisz, producers.

This past week, before Friday's tragedy in Paris, Scott Pelley went to Wisconsin, for a far-ranging conversation with the new speaker of the House.

Congress discovered new depths of dysfunction in September when the speaker of the House unexpectedly resigned, his designated successor refused the job and, Paul Ryan, the only leader Republicans could agree on, turned them down. Ryan didn't want the thankless job of leading a fractured majority that can't keep its promises. Besides, he preferred his house in Janesville, Wisconsin, to the people's house in Washington. But tonight, much to his surprise, Ryan is speaker, at 45, the youngest in more than 140 years and on his terms. He's an expert on the budget, Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012. And we met him, in his hometown, on his second week in the job.

ryan.jpg
Newly-elected U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.
REUTERS

Scott Pelley: Have you spoken to the president?

Paul Ryan: Yeah, a number of times.

Scott Pelley: Since you became speaker?

Paul Ryan: Uh-huh (affirm).

Scott Pelley: And the substance of those conversations has been what?

Paul Ryan: Varied on a number of different issues. And much of it discussed about things we can get working together on, things that we have to get done by the end of the year. And just, you know, courtesy issues. We talk about having teenage daughters too.

Scott Pelley: But you found a man you can work with?

Paul Ryan: Sure. Yeah, look, this is the job. Absolutely.

Scott Pelley: Well, it hasn't been--

Paul Ryan: He's president of the United States, my president too.

Scott Pelley: It hasn't, the job hasn't been getting done these last several years--

Paul Ryan: I agree with that. But nevertheless this government does have to work.

Scott Pelley: On your first day as speaker, you said you were going to wipe the slate clean.

Paul Ryan: Uh-huh (affirm).

Scott Pelley: And then in your very first news conference, you said the president has quote, "proven himself untrustworthy on immigration." That's not wiping the slate clean. That's blowing chalk dust in the president's face.

Paul Ryan: Well, I think wiping the slate clean was about wiping the slate clean in Congress and getting Congress, the House functioning again. But on this particular issue, he tried to go around Congress and write the law unilaterally.

Scott Pelley: But when people hear this they think, "Here we go again, nothing's going to change."

Paul Ryan: I think you can walk and chew gum at the same time. I think you can oppose the president on some issue that you fundamentally disagree with, but also work with the other party on issues you do agree with. That's what I've been doing. Look, if we can find common ground, we can on highways, we will on funding the government, hopefully we can on tax policy. Those are three things that will produce certainty in this economy in the next few months. Let's go do that.

Scott Pelley: There was a time on Capitol Hill when the other guy had a bad idea. And now on Capitol Hill the other guy's a bad guy.

"Somewhere in this we got into impugning people's character and motives if we didn't like their ideas. We gotta get back to just debating ideas."

Paul Ryan: Yeah, I think that's right.

Scott Pelley: How do you heal that animosity? It's your job now.

Paul Ryan: Leadership by the example is the way I look at it. Somewhere in this we got into impugning people's character and motives if we didn't like their ideas. We gotta get back to just debating ideas. And also I think we need to sort of, you know, we have two ears and one mouth. We gotta use those in that proportion.

His mother, Betty, taught him to listen more, and speak less. We met her, his wife Janna, and cousin Adam in a favorite neighborhood restaurant.

Scott Pelley: Janna, how did you first hear that Paul was being asked to be speaker of the House?

Janna Ryan: I am a big thrift store shopper and I was in my car in front of the Salvation Army here in Janesville when the phone rang. And he said "Well, this is coming our way. And you think I should say no, right?" And I said, "Oh yeah, you should say no." And that's how it started.

Scott Pelley: And it's speaker of the House, I mean, how do you say no?

Janna Ryan: For our family, for the rhythm of our life, for what we saw our path it just seemed like too much. It seemed like the pressure for him to travel, to be in so many places, to be so much to so many people would leave too little of him for his role as father and husband.

Scott Pelley: Mr. Speaker, how did you get from no to yes? You said hell no.

Paul Ryan: Yeah, I see myself as more of a policy maker than a political leader. I do politics in order to do policy. I came into it no. Then I realized the situation in our caucus was fairly dire and that I sort of had an obligation and a duty to step up and do it. And then the question was, can I redesign the job so that I can do it well, so I can be happy and successful? And the fact that we live here in Janesville, we don't live in Washington. And our kids are 10, 12 and 13 years old. It's mostly an empty-nester that gets this job who spends his or her weekends flying around America fundraising. I'm not gonna spend my Saturdays and Sundays flying around America fundraising. I'm gonna spend 'em here-- where I need to be. And so once I learned I could redesign the job, then I decided to do it. And now that I'm doing it I feel it's a great honor. I'm actually excited about it.

Janna Ryan: And now it's one of those things that I can't imagine that it wouldn't have happened. I'm not saying that there aren't moments that you think, "Wow, how did this happen? You know, how am I on 60 Minutes right now talking about Paul being speaker?" But it was, it just, it felt right.

Scott Pelley: Mr. Speaker, I--

Paul Ryan: I go by Paul. So if it's OK with you.

Scott Pelley: Would you prefer that? Because people aren't going to call you that.

Paul Ryan: Yeah, well, I prefer it if I--they are--

Scott Pelley: What adversity in your life has made you the person you are today?

Paul Ryan: Probably losing my dad when I was 16.

Scott Pelley: What happened?

Paul Ryan: He died of a heart attack. My mom was off with my aunt visiting my sister in Denver. I worked the late shift at McDonald's the night before. And I was gonna sleep in, wake up, mow the lawn. And my dad's office called asking where he was. And I went to find him and he was, you know, he had died over-- in his sleep-- of a heart attack.

Scott Pelley: What did you learn from it?

Paul Ryan: I learned tragedy. I learned perseverance. And I learned a lot about myself and about my mom and about my family.

Scott Pelley: Your father, your grandfather, your great-grandfather all died in their 50s. Does that put a fire under you?

Paul Ryan: It does. So I focus on just being healthy. I don't want this to happen to my kids, to Janna. And it does. It gave me the other sense that life is short, you better make the most of it.

Scott Pelley: Janna, this is an extremely rare opportunity for a reporter, you don't do interviews. I wonder why that is. Why not?

Janna Ryan: Because I've always wanted our family to be a refuge from politics, to be seen-- when people to see us as a family, to think of us as Janna and Paul and Charlie, Liza and Sam. Not as here comes the speaker of the House or here comes that guy who has those votes I don't like. Or whatever it would be. I want to be as a family here in Janesville a very included, normal, whatever that means, regular family.

Scott Pelley: Mr. Speaker, or Paul, if you insist, you don't have a home in Washington.

Paul Ryan: No, we live here in Janesville.

Scott Pelley: Where do you sleep?

Paul Ryan: For about a decade I've been sleeping on a cot in my office. It's very efficient to me.

Scott Pelley: You sleep every night in Washington on a cot in your office?

Paul Ryan: Yeah, I work a lot. All I do is work there. I get up very early in the morning, I work out. And then I work 'till about 11:00, 11:30 at night, do the same thing the next day.

Scott Pelley: Where do you get cleaned up?

Paul Ryan: In the gym. I work out every morning and I shower in the gym and I go on with my day.

Scott Pelley: One of the things that you said during this period of time that you were telling the Republican caucus that you didn't want the job was that you were concerned that the job would open up your children to ridicule.

Paul Ryan: Well, they're coming of age.

Scott Pelley: What does that say about politics in our country?

Paul Ryan: Yeah, that's a good point. Politics has become a blood sport that goes beyond just the person whose name is on the ballot. Basically our kids are getting to the age where they start paying attention and they're gonna see things about their dad that, you know, won't be flattering because I'll take controversial positions on policy issues and I just wanted to make sure our kids have a normal upbringing, a normal life like we had here in Janesville.

Janesville, southern Wisconsin, is getting on pretty well even though the GM plant closed after 90 years. 64,000 people mostly German and Irish.

Paul Ryan: We have 67 cousins, is our last count here in Janesville, and we all live within about eight blocks of each other.

His party's frontrunner for president proposes to deport all illegal immigrants.

Scott Pelley: What's your immigration plan?

Paul Ryan: I think it starts with border enforcement. I think it starts with enforcing the rule of law. But you need to have a vibrant, legal immigration system. Legal immigration is America. My name's Ryan.

Scott Pelley: But some sort of a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants...

Paul Ryan: I don't agree with that. I don't agree with that. I think you could have a pathway to legal status. That's been what I have proposed in the past is a pay--a way to make amends with the law, effectively go on probation and earn your way to legal status, but not to citizenship.

Scott Pelley: I take it you don't advocate rounding up 11 million illegal immigrants and deporting them.

Paul Ryan: I do not.

Scott Pelley: That's not going to happen while you're speaker of the House.

Paul Ryan: I can't imagine how it could happen. So no.

Scott Pelley: You have proposed having only two tax brackets, 10 percent and 25 percent. That still your position?

Paul Ryan: Yeah, I've always liked that plan. And our tax code really punishes our small businesses, which is where most of our jobs come from. I mean, look, we're sitting here in Wisconsin, overseas, which to us means Lake Superior. You know, the Canadians are taxing their businesses at 15 percent. The top tax-rate on successful small businesses in America, here in Wisconsin, is 44.6 percent. How can you compete like that? How can you have jobs? How can working families get ahead with a tax system like that?

Scott Pelley: Give me three things you would do on tax reform. Very specifically.

Paul Ryan: Well, I'd simplify the code dramatically. I would collapse the rates down to two or three. And I would change the way we tax ourselves internationally, so businesses can take their money and bring it back home so American businesses stay American businesses. And we have to drop our rates on our businesses. I think those three things right there are what I would do.

Scott Pelley: With this new job what are the stakes of failure?

Paul Ryan: The country stays on the path it is on, deep poverty, flat wages, working families falling behind, a wreck of national security, oh, followed up by a debt crisis.

Scott Pelley: And what is the elephant in the room?

Paul Ryan: Well, I think it's our entitlement programs, it's our budget deficits--

Scott Pelley: Social Security?

Paul Ryan: It's Social Security, it's Medicare, it's Medicaid. And the good news on these issues is that if we reform them for the next generation now, we can guarantee, guarantee that people in or near retirement don't have any changes in their benefits.

Scott Pelley: Most people don't realize that two-thirds of the federal budget is Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Pentagon. The U.S. government is an insurance company with an Army.

Paul Ryan: That's right.

Scott Pelley: So in terms of Social Security, in your view, we're gonna have to raise the retirement age?

Paul Ryan: We haven't as a caucus decided this issue yet. So as speaker of the House, I help manage and bring to a consensus, I'm not dictator of the House. But I have always believed, and I've been public about this for many years, for younger people, when they age, we should change the retirement age to reflect longevity. Because that just to make the program finances work.

Not dictator of the House, but he did start with an ultimatum to about 40 conservatives called the Freedom Caucus. If he was going to leave his dream job, chairman of Ways and Means, the tax committee, he demanded their support by the end of the week. They agreed. And Ryan promised to open the process to their ideas and amendments. But when it comes to a vote he expects their support.

Scott Pelley: Do you work for the Freedom Caucus or do they work for you?

Paul Ryan: We work for the American people. That's a nice, clever question. But you know who I work for? I work for the first district from Wisconsin.

Scott Pelley: But those people are generally happy with you. And the Freedom Caucus is not generally happy with you all the time. And I just wonder how you're going to keep them corralled.

Paul Ryan: I think you try to lead people. Lead people to consensus, lead people to laying a positive agenda and a vision out there, and that is what I intend to do. And I think that's not corralling, but that's leading.

Scott Pelley: How long do you imagine you might be speaker?

Paul Ryan: I have no idea. Fourteen months for now is what I know. For the rest of this term.

Scott Pelley: Do you think of this as a long-term occupation for you?

"You have to take risks on policy. You can't be a politician, wringing your hands, worried about what the public opinion polls are saying or worried about the negative attacks. If you believe in something, go fight for it."

Paul Ryan: I really haven't. I was just planning on serving out my tenure at Ways and Means chair and then going finding out something else to do with my life.

Scott Pelley: Leaving the Congress?

Paul Ryan: So yeah. I really don't know how long this is gonna last. This wasn't something I was planning on doing in the first place.

But to do the job, he told us, you have to be willing to lose the job.

Paul Ryan: You have to take risks on policy. You can't be a politician, wringing your hands, worried about what the public opinion polls are saying or worried about the negative attacks. If you believe in something, go fight for it. If you think you have a good idea and a good reform and you're going to get criticized for it, do it anyway because I think that's what people in this country want to see. And so, yes, you have to be willing to lose these jobs-- meaning you have to be a political leader, willing to lose an election if you want to do what's right. That's the way the founders envisioned this in the whole first place.

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"