Perhaps it's a mistake to measure the Tea Party's success only in terms of primaries won or forced. A better indicator might be the movement's impact on the GOP: have Tea Partiers finally gotten Republicans to debate how, rather than whether, to cut federal spending?
The Republican-controlled House has twice passed budgets introduced by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who chairs the Budget Committee. Unless its tax reforms have a significantly greater supply-side effect than conventional static accounting assumes, the House plan doesn't reach balance until roughly 2040 but it does produce reforms that tackle the long-term drivers of the country's national debt.
Last week, Sen. Pat Toomey unveiled a proposal to balance the budget in eight years. Unlike Ryan, the Pennsylvania Republican didn't come up with a plan for overhauling Medicare. But Toomey does knock most discretionary spending back to 2006 levels, freezing it there for seven years and indexing it to inflation thereafter.
The Republican Study Committee and the Senate Tea Party Caucus have also offered spending blueprints that try to balance the budget in just five years. The RSC budget, rejected by the full House, endorses Ryan's Medicare plans but doesn't count the savings -- which don't come until after workers under the age of 55 begin to retire -- toward near-term deficit reduction. The Senate Tea Partiers, led by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, have their own proposal for revamping Medicare.
While Toomey emphasizes that his approach complements the House budget -- he has included the Ryan Medicare reforms, pointing out that their basic framework enjoys bipartisan support -- Paul is more critical. "The problem with the Ryan budget is that he takes the hit on Medicare but doesn't get the political upside of balancing the budget," Paul says, citing estimates that the House would eliminate deficits 28 years from now. “You look at the life expectancy of most of Congress... I might not be here in 20 years, and I’m on the younger side."
This is a replay of a debate that occurred last year. At a briefing of Senate Republicans, Paul reportedly told Ryan that the "Path to Prosperity" takes too long to balance the budget. Ryan countered that Paul's own proposal made quick, dramatic cuts to discretionary spending but without entitlement reform the deficits would return with a vengance in the out years. Paul included a competing version of Medicare reform in his budget this year, which he argues will yield savings faster and be easier to explain to the American public.
Similarly, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the senator's father, has twice voted against the Ryan budget on the grounds that it doesn't go far enough. In the budget plan he proposed as part of his 2012 presidential campaign, the elder Paul identified $1 trillion in specific spending cuts in just one year. Yet Ron Paul has also been zinged for "timidity" on entitlements.
"According to his campaign manager, Paul simply wants to have an 'adult conversation' about how to keep Medicare and Social Security working," John McCormack wrote in the Weekly Standard. "An 'adult conversation' is exactly what Barack Obama has proposed instead of an actual plan."
One conservative reading of the country's fiscal problems is that the only way to build support for a plan that will prevent Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid from devouring the entire budget or driving the country deeper into debt is to implement reforms gradually. Otherwise, senior citizens -- a key Republican constituency -- will balk and nothing will ever pass Congress.
The contrary view is that gradual reforms have proven just as easy for Democrats to attack without producing tangible near-term results to show the voters. It is hard for Congress to abide by its own spending caps and budget plans, much less bind future Congresses. What makes a thirty-year plan any different?
At the heart of this debate lies a dilemma: when spending programs are cut, they tend to grow back. It is more enduring to eliminate them entirely. Abolishing the Commerce Department will produce less of a backlash than transforming Medicare, and might build credibility for future Republican cuts. But eliminating agencies and programs is exceptionally hard to do. It is rare for one party to have the votes. And as Obamacare has demonstrated, sweeping reforms are easier to undo if they are rammed through in a partisan manner.
In one sense, this is progress. As recently as George W. Bush's presidency, Republicans were debating whether to cut spending rather than how to do so. The pro-spending Republicans won, with the result being the unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, and pork-laden farm, transportation, and energy bills. After Social Security reform fizzled out early in Bush's second term, the GOP legacy of that period was making the entitlements problem worse rather than better.
The pro-spending Republicans are still there, carping off the record to reporters about Ryan and Paul's budget cuts. Some of them hope to come out of hiding after the election. But for now, the debate among Tea Party-influenced fiscal conservatives is drowning them out.
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