House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., reiterated that the House GOP’s fiscal year 2012 budget will include significant proposals to reform entitlements when he sat down today with National Journal’s Major Garrett to discuss the recently passed two-week continuing resolution, the nation’s debt problem, health care -- and the antics of actor Charlie Sheen.
In what was the second in a series of National Journal-led conversations with the new GOP chairmen of House committees, Garrett asked Ryan if his budget plan would contain “the most aggressive entitlement reforms Washington has ever seen.” Ryan nodded in response, then cautioned that "that doesn’t mean much.”
Ryan wouldn't spell out what kind of entitlement reforms he has in mind -- “I want to leave something up for surprise when we release this budget in April,” he said -- but he assured Garrett that entitlement reform will “absolutely” play a role.
He was more optimistic about Democratic cooperation than many of his colleagues in GOP leadership. While passage of the latest stopgap spending bill does not mean the Senate has accepted the House GOP's scale of proposed spending cuts, he said, it does mean “they’ve accepted the premise that 2010 levels are too high and they’re willing to go lower.”
Ryan tried to deflect criticism that the larger cuts included in the CR -- such as those to the Environmental Protection Agency -- had more to do with an ideological crusade than fiscal discipline. "The programs that got the massive increases over the last two years got the big cuts,” he said.
After criticizing Obama for taking a “punt and duck” approach to the biggest fiscal problems, Ryan said he was still hopeful about working with the White House.
"I think the president knows we have a spending problem, and I’m hoping he will work with us,” he said. On what? Tax reform is “one of the few hopes I still have with the administration,” he said, noting that corporate tax reform seems a likely area of compromise.
It’s no secret what Ryan wants on taxes: broadening the base and lowering the rates. He hewed closely to the GOP stance that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. "If you think the tax code should be a tool of wealth redistribution and social engineering, I’m not your guy,” he said.
But, he said, the pre-presidential race political silly season is not far off, so reform needs to be done sooner rather than later.
In response to an audience question about whether he’d studied the 1997 Clinton-era budget plan (which produced surpluses), Ryan said simply, “I wish Erskine Bowles were president right now, because we’d have this thing fixed.”
Bowles, a former White House chief of staff to President Clinton, served with Ryan on Obama’s deficit-reduction panel.
The one issue Ryan has with the 1997 plan, he said, is that the “policy shows you price controls don’t work,” a failure he sees in Obama’s health care law.
The Congressional Budget Office’s alternate scenarios for the health care law -- “what they think is more likely to happen,” Ryan said -- prove that the law will drive up deficits, he said, noting that the problem keeps him and Charlie Sheen up at night.
This article appears in the March 3, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.