The Real Goal of Paul Ryan's Budget

Spending for this year is already set, and no one expects to enact the latest GOP proposal. But the document is a roadmap to show voters what Republicans will do if they were in charge.
Mike Theiler/Reuters

Representative Paul Ryan’s Republican budget provides plenty of lines of partisan engagement this election year, including its call for a “full” repeal of the Affordable Care Act, its embrace of a form of “dynamic” fiscal scoring, and its revival of the battle over turning the Medicare system into a voucher-like program.

This austere plan is to be formally adopted by Ryan’s Budget Committee on Wednesday. But to achieve its envisioned cut of about $5.1 trillion in spending and a balanced budget by 2024, the document includes what appear to be a number of merely philosophical, aspirational, and even fantastical underpinnings.

The reality is that no one expects this budget document that pushes higher defense spending—and cuts and changes to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and other social-safety-net programs—really has any chance of becoming law. The Senate won’t take it up; Democrats who control the chamber aren’t even doing a budget of their own.

Even Ryan admits that the proposal has no practical impact right now, as appropriators from both parties aren’t focusing beyond fiscal 2015. And spending levels for the next fiscal year starting in October have already been set under the two-year deal the Wisconsin Republican worked out in December with Democratic Senator Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Budget Committee.

But all of that is not necessarily the point.

Rather, this longer-term spending proposal is more an exercise by Republicans to provide voters a road map, of sorts, of what they would do if they were totally in charge. Or, as Ryan said on Tuesday: “We also think it’s important to show our vision as a party for the future.”

Perhaps the budget that Ryan’s committee will mark up is really an accurate depiction of that GOP vision. Who knows?

The truth is, there is little political risk in throwing out ideas and principles, since Republicans know there is no immediate possibility of enactment. And seeing things through, as of late, has been a bit of a problem for House Republicans on a few other difficult budget matters where they ultimately retreated from their earlier positions.

For instance, many Republicans were unable last year to swallow some of the cuts to non-defense discretionary spending called for in a previous Ryan budget. Later, the ink wasn’t dry on a cut to military pensions, passed as part of the December budget agreement with Murray, when Republicans rushed to join Democrats in undoing the cut. And last month, just hours after President Obama unveiled his own fiscal 2015 budget plan to GOP catcalls about taxes and spending, scores of House Republicans joined with Democrats in voting to weaken reforms they had passed in 2012 to save billions of dollars in federal flood-insurance costs.

Yet, with this new Ryan budget plan, it seems, the GOP budget-cutting imagination is once again unleashed to run wild.

Sixty-two House Republicans opposed the Ryan-Murray deal, ostensibly because it did not seem to cut spending fast enough, though it was pegged specifically only to the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. As Ryan explains it, however, that was a “small, narrow agreement,” and he says he is not so much worried about similar internal GOP opposition to “this much bigger picture” that “does show a path to balancing the budget.” The federal government is now about $17.5 trillion in debt.

Presented by

Billy House

Bill House is a staff writer (Congress) for National Journal.

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