When Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republicans' budget proposal for fiscal 2013, many Democratic campaign strategists were ecstatic. A Politico headline blared, "For Democrats, GOP budget is Christmas in March." They eagerly anticipated some election-year demagoguery, accusing Republicans of "ending" Medicare and perhaps reprising images of Ryan pushing a wheelchair-bound old lady off a cliff.
The Ryan budget put many Republicans in a similarly festive mood. Compared to President Obama's fiscal blueprint, the House GOP plan reduces spending by more than $5 trillion, deficits by more than $3 trillion, taxes by $2 trillion, and the national debt by more than $1 trillion over the next decade. Over the longer term, it envisions a sustainable debt-to-GDP ratio and a solvent, consumer-based Medicare system.
But not all reactions fit neatly along party lines. There were Democrats who privately -- and in the case of liberal Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, quite publicly -- sympathized with the premium support model for Medicare. There were Republicans who feared tackling tough fiscal issues in an election year, perhaps preferring to take a Senate-style break from passing budgets at all.
Most surprising of all, however, was the pushback from fiscal conservatives who didn't think Ryan's budget went far enough. The Club for Growth opposed the proposal on the ground that it takes too long to balance the budget -- deficits aren't eliminated until 2040, nearly 30 years from now -- and waives most of the mandated spending cuts required by the failure of the supercommittee.
"The Club for Growth urges Republicans to support a budget that balances in the near future and complies with the Budget Control Act," Club president Chris Chocola, a former GOP congressman, said in a statement.
A FreedomWorks blogger gave the plan a more mixed assessment. "Unfortunately, the plan doesn't really try to balance the budget or specify a single cabinet agency for elimination," complained Dean Clancy, who went on to say, "Like last year's Ryan budget, the new version takes Social Security and defense off the spending-cut table."
Two leading Tea Party freshmen, Reps. Tim Huelskamp and Justin Amash, went so far as to vote against their chairman in committee. As a result, the plan only cleared the House Budget Committee by a narrow 19 to 18 vote. Last year, only four House Republicans in total voted against the Ryan plan.
Even before the House budget was announced, Sens. Rand Paul, Jim DeMint, and Mike Lee lined up behind a proposal that eliminates cabinet-level departments and purports to reach balance faster without raising taxes. Today a group of conservative House members who belong to the Republican Study Committee will propose their own alternative budget.
The RSC seeks to balance the budget in five years. The House conservatives propose setting discretionary spending at $931 billion -- about $2 billion below where it was under Nancy Pelosi in 2008 -- and freezing it there over the five-year period it takes for the budget to balance. According to RSC staff, "This number is reached by starting with the House Budget Committee's proposal of $1.028 trillion and subtracting the $97 billion cut to discretionary spending required this year by the August debt ceiling increase."
RSC chairman Jim Jordan said in a conference call Monday that the House conservatives' proposal "deals with the sequester in a more straightforward way" than the Republican conference plan. Under the RSC budget, non-defense discretionary spending would shrink from $377 billion in 2013 to $329 billion in 2022. The plan endorses Ryan's basic proposals to reform Medicare and block grants both Medicaid and SCHIP to the states.
"Obviously, we though we could do better," Rep. Scott Garrett said Monday in explaining why the RSC once again introduced an alternative budget with deeper, more immediate spending cuts. But Jordan emphasized they were trying to improve upon the official House Republican budget, not undermine it. "There is a budget that will pass the House this week," he told the conference call, "and it will be Paul Ryan's budget."
"The vast majority of the RSC will be supportive [of Ryan's budget] because it is something that can get passed," Jordan said. "It's a heck of a lot better than the president's budget." But the RSC wanted to demonstrate that House Republicans feasibly could and should go even further.
There is always the danger of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Ryan has gotten the full House to vote in favor of far-reaching Medicare reforms and a budget that spends much less than the president's. Republicans were hoping to repeat that accomplishment this year.
But there is also a danger in relying too heavily on future Congresses to carry out bold spending reforms over a long period of time, when legislators routinely bust through the spending caps they set for themselves. Will any spending blueprint proceed perfectly according to projections through 2040?
Already, the conservative pushback has caused Ryan to emphasize that his plan balances the budget more rapidly when scored against the economic growth he believes his supply-side tax policies will stimulate. The choice to remain in traditional Medicare, new to this year's version of the budget, also creates the possibility of starting reforms and realizing savings sooner. Neither the House Republicans nor the RSC currently propose any changes for anyone aged 55 and over.
Given the gargantuan federal budget, it can't hurt to debate more ideas for cutting spending. And for once in the Washington budget battles, congressional Republicans are facing pressure from the right and not just the left.
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