Yesterday The American Spectator and Americans for Tax Reform hosted a breakfast with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee, and the Republican point man on budget reform. The gathering was moderated by TAS's publisher, Al Regnery.
Representing one of the most Democratic and unionized district in the country, located in southeastern Wisconsin, Chairman Ryan is serving his seventh term. He is unique in being the only elected official, the President included, to offer a comprehensive reform of entitlements, health care and taxation, sans tax increases, in the form of "A Roadmap for America's Future."
"We are headed for a fiscal cliff," stated the Congressman, starkly, in his opening remarks. "Everyone in town recognizes we have a debt crisis except the President," who is promoting tax increases based on the faulty assumption that the problem is insufficient revenue rather than excess spending.
Ryan is clearly focused on getting control of trillions of dollars of expenditures not just billions. He wants "to go after the drivers of our debt" which means entitlement reform. In fact, he insists that the Republicans will actually make such proposals regardless of the political heat it will, inevitably, generate. This will necessitate a massive public education campaign to communicate to voters the causes and consequences of our current predicament.
Is entitlement reform a third-rail issue? "We aren't in the conventional moment," opined the Budget Chairman. Spending has escalated so much, the European sovereign debt crises are so visible, that "we are obliged to offer an alternative vision," notwithstanding the heated controversy which will result.
Congressman Ryan's most interesting remarks, at least for this listener, was his characterization of the current fiscal crisis as more than just an economic one. It is also a question of cultural self-definition. The current Administration's push towards an American version of a kind of European social democracy, with cradle to grave entitlements, "is not who we are," said the Representative from Janesville, Wisconsin. His goal is to restore "an opportunity society with a safety net."
"At the end of the day, it is a cultural thing," claimed Ryan. The choice is between a government-subsidized hammock or an ethic of self-reliance. He framed the question as, "What kind of people do we want to be?" The government should not be providing entitlement rights for able-bodied people but simply assuring them equal opportunity, not equality of results.
Criticizing President Obama for his "fundamental unseriousness" on the issues of spending, debt and entitlement, the Congressman expressed his astonishment that, unlike the TARP controversy, a tremendous shock and surprise to the political system, we can see this crisis coming and have seen it for some time. The President knows about this ahead of time but chooses "not to do anything about it."
"If we shy away from this moment [of crisis], it is immoral," stated Ryan. Fortunately, "The country is ready for leadership." Indeed, he believes the congressional Democrats will have a hard time opposing budget cuts. "Defending their spending binge is an indefensible position."
Chairman Ryan is a very upbeat person and this attitude is reflected in his general sense that, despite inevitable disagreements within the GOP caucus, including the insistence of the freshman class that budget cuts be very aggressive (a position with which he is very comfortable it seems), the debate now centers on what to cut rather than what to spend. He believes the culture is changing even on the Appropriations Committee where several outstanding freshmen, "cutters" as he calls them, are now members. He cited an old Wisconsin farm breakfast maxim, chickens are involved, but pigs are committed. The frosh are committed! They are here for a cause, not just to be somebody. "They are doers, not just be-ers [sic]." He also views the new congressional class as generally "fantastic."
He notes that real progress can be seen since the budget, pursuant to the new Continuing Resolution, is now below 2010 levels, below the President's so-called "floor" at last. He foresees further progress if there are subsequent CRs, lopping off another $4 billion each time one passes. He indicated that the White House was willing to accept an $8 billion cut for an entire month. He calls this unfolding process, the "Rolling Fours."
There are, it seems, more than one way to skin a cat.
While seeking to manage expectations as to what can be accomplished in the face of a Democratic Senate and White House, again, he wants to "focus on the big picture," the trillions of dollars that need to be saved through reform of the budget process and entitlements, over the long haul, not just the billions of dollars in this or that individual program in any given fiscal year.
Moreover, health care inflation and demographic shifts, i.e., aging, are the biggest drivers of our current crisis. He argues for "not just one single reform," but many that will transform the health care system into one that is consumer-driven and grounded in market principles. Ryan believes such a system would improve quality and drive down costs.
After noting a range of policy initiatives -- statutory spending caps and a drive for accrual accounting, for instance -- Chairman Ryan focused on the ultimate problem caused by the Obama Administration's seemingly endless spending and taxing with its inexorable negative impact on business investment and job creation. Citing the late Nobel Prize winner, Milton Friedman, he observed that "Today's deficits are tomorrow's tax increases." This self-evident truth, not lost on the nation's business leaders, creates uncertainty in the economy and depresses risk-taking and investment. To put it another way, Ryan said that spending and endless, massive borrowing "come at the expense of long-term growth."
Thus, Chairman Ryan aims to reverse this systematic bias away from spending and redirect it towards real budget cutting and substantive reform. The man and the moment, it seems, have met.
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