Common Ground

Paul Ryan Opens a Door to the Congressional Black Congress

The House Budget chairman's visit with some of his toughest critics on Capitol Hill may be the beginning of some bipartisan solutions on poverty.

Melissa Golden/Redux

If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound? If Paul Ryan visits communities to try to solve some of the most vexing problems facing our nation, will the media cover it?

The chairman of the House Budget Committee has been on a yearlong listening tour to hear firsthand how our tax dollars affect those most at risk in the safety net that comprises much of our social-welfare spending. Beginning in January 2013 in his home state, the Wisconsin Republican set out to meet with 12 providers of hope across the country, ranging from Pastor Darryl Webster’s Boot Camp at the Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis to Curtis Watkins’ National Homecomers Academy in the District of Columbia. Most of those whom Ryan met were faith-based institutions in some of America’s most distressed communities. But what inspired Ryan to engage in such an outreach in the first place?

I visited with Ryan this week to discuss what he’s learned. He told me that he was inspired by what he’d seen and heard; the dedication, determination, and spirit of those most in need of help working to better themselves and those in their communities. When I asked what had surprised him the most, he immediately noted that he had been struck by the generosity of people to roll up their sleeves and help those less fortunate than themselves—the businessman willing to offer a job to someone from a distressed community and then vouch for the individual looking for a hand up rather than a handout.

I was further surprised to hear that Ryan had just returned from a closed-door meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus—a meeting convened at their request. My first instinct was that Ryan had been taken to the woodshed for having the temerity to say the following a little more than a month ago:

[There is a] tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.

But not only did the Ryan not receive a tongue-lashing, the Congressional Black Caucus wanted to hear about what Ryan had learned over the past year as he sought meaningful solutions to ameliorate poverty. The caucus went so far as to provide Ryan with four questions in advance to better frame their discussion. For example:

Can you discuss the central tenets of your policy proposals to help people rise out of poverty and prevent generational poverty without causing undue harm to families and children who are struggling to overcome poverty?

Ryan told me, as he would later note in a press release describing his meeting, that poverty isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue but one in which there should be bipartisan support to eradicate. “There’s no question that poverty is a serious problem, one with many causes and no easy answers. But that’s why we need to confront it,” he said. “And we need to extend the conversation beyond Washington to communities across the country.”

While press coverage of the Congressional Black Caucus inviting Ryan to their weekly meeting has been scant, something quite important took place on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. For a Congress better known for partisan gridlock and recriminations, a thoughtful congressman sat down with a thoughtful caucus to find common ground to help Americans escape the cruel grip of poverty. Ryan assured me Wednesday that his meeting was the start, rather than the end, of dialogue with the Congressional Black Caucus.

Here’s hoping that these lawmakers working across party lines will find a way to engage their colleagues to make significant progress for those who don’t have an army of lobbyists or special interests to speak on their behalf. Let’s hope this is the start of an important dialogue bringing lawmakers together to address critical needs of their constituents. Many in Washington engaged in conversation are waiting to talk rather than listening to what’s being said. I applaud Paul Ryan and the CBC members for their willingness to engage while respectfully listening to what each had to say.