What is Paul Ryan’s budget for?

I will never stop loving this photograph.

I will never stop loving this photograph.

Paul Ryan has released his new budget plan, and it is not well received. The editorial board of the Washington Post starts with the good ideas to be found therein, “since that is the shortest list.” At the New Yorker, John Cassidy all but calls it a work of fantasy. It balances the budget by 2023. It fixes the top marginal income tax rate at 25%. To reconcile these two conflicting and unrequested achievements, it A) forecasts much higher economic growth over the next ten years than any reputable economists predict, and B) repeals Obamacare while keeping the tax increases on high earners and $700 billion in cuts to Medicare that pay for it. You might remember that $700 billion as an aspect of Obamacare that Ryan and Mitt Romney relentlessly criticized in the 2012 election; now Ryan likes it. In fact, you might remember the whole budget as one of the most unpopular ideas of last year. Which begs the question: why is he proposing it again?

Now is a good time to remind ourselves that there is no way the Ryan budget will pass. It might make it through the house; although Democrats will be unified in their opposition against it, enough Republicans might hoist the banner of Randian zeal to march it through. Then it will die. A Democratic Senate would never approve it, and the President would not sign it into law if they did. As a doomed proposal that resembles last year’s doomed proposal, only more so, the Ryan budget does not serve a functional purpose in the administration of the United States government.

It’s rhetorical purpose, on the other hand, is manifest. You can see it in the odd combination of desperate cuts to domestic programs and a $500 billion increase in defense spending. A man who was looking to lower taxes by any means necessary might give a $250,000 break average household making over $1 million a year a  at the expense of Medicare. A man hoping to balance the budget in a decade might slash spending across the board and project growth to make up the difference. But he would not do all those things and devote an extra half trillion to the Pentagon just to make it harder on himself.

As Cassidy points out, the Ryan budget is less a plan for how the government spends money than a declaration of principles. It is a manifesto, and the contents of that manifesto are either a clarion call or utterly dispiriting, depending on which party you like better. If you are a Democrat, it’s nonsense—nonsense that voters roundly rejected in November. If you are a Republican, it is an image of the government that should be, even if present conditions in Washington guarantee that it will not.

As a proposal that stands zero chance of becoming law, the Ryan budget demonstrates that congressional Republicans’ scorched-earth opposition to the other 2.5 branches of government is not obstinacy but ideas. Look, Ryan says, advancing a plan that might wreck the economy and assumes it will do phenomenally well, we’re offering alternatives. At least it would demonstrate that, were it not constructed with the knowledge that it will never pass.

As it is, the new Ryan budget is a monument to cynicism. Like a priest who condemning marital infidelity, it trumpets a pious orthodoxy from a position of pure theory. As a bellwether for the Republican caucus, it’s informational: the Republican caucus is as far to the right and as stridently so as it has been for the last four years. As a piece of campaign literature, it’s useful: every representative who votes for it can hold it up to primary voters as proof that he carries water for the conservative grassroots. As a possible budget for the federal government of the United States, it is disqualified.

That’s fine, provided you think of governance as a winner-take-all contest in which the opposition party plays no role but that of conscientious objector. If you want Republicans to have a role in shaping federal policy, however, it is disappointing to see Paul Ryan devote his resources to fantasy. In theory, he is one of the best fiscal policy wonks the GOP has. Certainly, he brings a fresh perspective to the budget. It would be nice to see that perspective alloyed with Democratic priorities, tempering the center-left, rather than sitting in a cold pile as an unused alternate material.

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