LAKE GENEVA, Wis. — Sitting in Badger High School's music room in this Walworth County town, House Speaker Paul Ryan ticks through the issues he considers critical to the country's growth.
Tax reform, his self-avowed duty to fix Obamacare, poverty, opioid addiction and a 100-year correction of 20th century progressivism are foremost on his mind.
So is civility.
"It's pretty raw in the country right now," he says.
Wherever he goes, but especially when young people are in the audience, Ryan stresses the importance of spreading civility. "It is something I talk to my staff and the members of my committee about," he adds.
That's a stark contrast to the chaos of a Washington, D.C., where he leads half of one of the three branches of government.
Ryan has just finished a question-and-answer session in an auditorium filled with social studies students in his Southeastern Wisconsin congressional district.
"I was pretty impressed to get a question about the 10th Amendment," he says, maneuvering around the music room's keyboards. He can play, he acknowledges, but decides against demonstrating his skills.
"We get hit so much, I say just don't respond in kind, just kill with kindness, just let people get stuff off of their chest," he says, explaining his instructions on civility.
He tells his staff and House members that they are, essentially, a vessel for people to express their frustration with government. His guidance is threefold: "Don't take it personally. Help people process it. And don't let your emotions get the best of you."
He is not immune to the barrage of less-than-civil behavior: "I get it going to the grocery store. Going to track meets, you name it."
Yet he says he won't let that get in the way of reforms that the Republican congressional majority wants to put in place by year's end.
Healthcare in three steps
Despite controversies and in-party fighting over the American Health Care Act, Ryan's Republican forces passed the bill in early May.
The main controversy was over allowing states to seek a waiver from their Obamacare obligation to allow people who are already sick to buy insurance at the same price as those who are healthy.
The party problems occurred between House cetnrists of the Tuesday Group and lawmakers in the Freedom Caucus, who are more conservative.
Ryan knows the bill's passage is just the first of a three-stage process: "House, Senate, then conference." He also understands widespread confusion and concern with the bill, calling it "such a personal issue ... such an important issue in people's lives."
The problem, he believes, begins with people mistakenly thinking the bill affects job-based insurance. "They just see 'healthcare' and they think their own healthcare may be at stake," he says.
Only 11 percent of people buy insurance as individuals, he explains, but that market is collapsing because of Obamacare's costly mandates.
Yet, because most people don't get their health coverage in that collapsing market, they are largely oblivious to the unfolding disaster. "The people who are on Obamacare, who see the jacked-up premiums and deductibles or loss of plans, they understand there is a big problem," Ryan says.
Cutting through the confusion of such a complex issue is, he says, one of his biggest challenges. But Republicans "are in the majority. We have an obligation that if we see a crisis, we have got to step into that crisis and prevent that crisis from getting worse.
"We just have to see it through. We made a commitment; we ran on a plan. Let's do our jobs and keep our commitments. And we will be vindicated by the results," he says.
Most critical issue? Tax reform
With the not-so-pretty passage of the healthcare bill behind him, Ryan is anxious to take up tax reform, which he sees as the issue most critical to reviving the economy.
He steadfastly believes comprehensive reform will create jobs, which has been the Republican Party's central promise and attraction with middle-class voters.
"The entire goal of tax reform is to get faster economic growth and faster wage growth. To get the economy to grow faster so that people get more take-home pay," he says.
"Our tax code, I would say, is probably one of our biggest detriments to our economy today."
Like it or not, we live in a 21st century global economy, he explains, "and when you have one of the world's worst tax systems, it is really putting Americans, their families, businesses and people in a bad position."
The implication is that, because of a tax system so much less attractive than those in other jurisdictions, American companies are suffering.
"These days we have [American] companies becoming foreign companies because of the tax code, we have foreign companies buying U.S. companies because of the tax code, and we are losing jobs and businesses because of our tax code," he says.
On the flip side, if Congress reforms tax properly, American businesses can catch up to the rest of the world and have one of the most competitive tax systems. "Then we can create a lot more economic growth, a lot more jobs, a lot more upper mobility."
Faster growth would accelerate wage growth, he says. "Wages have been stagnant. We haven't grown the economy. We haven't hit 3 percent since before the recession. That was a long time ago."
That's what demonstrates to him how critical tax reform is. "We last reformed the tax code in 1986, so it is high time that it is due."
Despite the healthcare battle, early jousting over taxes and daily controversy over what the White House says or does, Congress miraculously reached agreement in late April on a broad spending package to fund the government through the end of September.
It included $100 million to combat opioid addiction, a problem that cuts across ages and socioeconomic groups. "It's everywhere," says Ryan.
He does not want Washington to intercede with a heavy hand. "I want to make sure that the federal government does not work in tension with local communities and local governments and state governments."
Ryan wants the federal government to get in sync with local efforts and then get money to local communities to fight the opioid epidemic.
"I think those kinds of programs, on the very most peer-to-peer local level, are the most effective," he says. "This is my case for poverty as well.
"I think it is important that local people get involved in helping each other's problems. A.) They are close to the problem. B.) They have the freedom to innovate. And, C.) You want to tell stories and cross-pollinate."
If good local programs work, they can be replicated in other areas, Ryan says, adding, "We've got to learn from each other to combat this."
The 100-year correction
Ryan believes the country may be in the middle of a 100-year correction against 20th century progressivism, which could transfer power from a one-size-fits-all federal government back to individual people in states and localities.
"I think it is really important to get local civil society and local communities with the power to innovate problem-solving," he says.
In the late 20th century, says Ryan, the left, the progressive movement, thought big government was beautiful government. "If you could consolidate power in Washington, it is more efficient," he said of left-wing thinking, "If you could send decisions to a centralized authority, we could be more efficient and more effective."
Yet this wound up stunting innovation, he says. "It dumbed-down communities. It treated everybody the same. We went to a low common denominator, and we disrupted the ability for innovation to take place."
So, to him, progressive consolidation of power dismembered civil society, local control and innovation.
"I think what we are seeing is a returning trend to reinvigorating that," he says, calling it a healthy change.
The rise of technical school education
Another important aspect of Ryan's plan for prosperity is to focus on education, including at technical schools, where innovative career education will prepare a 21st century workforce.
In meetings with employers in Wisconsin and Ohio, he says, he heard the same refrain that a skills gap exists in America's workforce. "We need people with high technical proficiency," he says.
"There are a lot of good, high-paying jobs with benefits here in Wisconsin in the technical fields," he says. "We need to re-emphasize that to students."
Outlook for midterms
What will it take to hold the House in congressional elections next year?
Ryan says it's pretty simple: "Keep our word. Do what we said we would do. And let the results prove themselves."