Last year, the House Republican budget was billed as curbing the country’s so-called spending spree.
This year, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has tweaked his message to center it squarely on lawmakers’ moral responsibility to cut spending, transform entitlements, and set the country on a different trajectory than the one endorsed by President Obama and Democrats.
Ryan makes this point in a Web video released on Thursday, in which the camera shows him walking down an empty hallway to the sound of ominous music. He asks: “What if your president, your senator, and your congressman knew a crisis was coming?” he says, calling politicians who do nothing to stop it “immoral.” “This coming debt crisis is the most predictable crisis we’ve ever had.”
If the debt crisis is predictable in Ryan’s mind, than so too are the contours of the House Republican budget to be released early this week. Pivoting off Ryan’s plans from 2011, this budget is expected to emphasize lower spending for domestic programs, which could mean financial hits to everything from protecting the environment to agencies that regulate banks or programs that offer job training.
The budget will propose a change in the structure of Medicare and Medicaid, and it will offer absolute protection of defense spending, a move Democrats call politically disingenuous because it flies in the face of the sequester laboriously agreed to last year that mandates across-the-board spending cuts for both defense and discretionary spending beginning in 2013.
The details of how the Republicans plan to pay for delaying the sequestration remain unclear, as does the topline figure for spending. Conservatives, House Budget Committee members, and leadership spent last week haggling over that number. They are expected to put forth a plan with lower spending caps than the Budget Control Act’s $1.047 trillion—somewhere between $931 billion and $1.028 trillion.
Politically, it’s risky for Ryan to push forward on controversial ideas during an election year, potentially giving the Democrats more ammunition on the campaign trail.
“The Republican approach is a totally lopsided approach to dealing with this major issue. They want to shred the social safety net and dramatically cut programs that protect seniors,” said House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Ryan has bought himself some political cover, as he tries to emphasize any aspects of the budget condoned by a few stray Democrats. For instance, if he puts forth the same Medicare plan he and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., developed, Ryan can seek cover under the mantle of bipartisanship.
Still, Ryan has said he cares more about controlling the debt than taking the White House. “I think we have to do everything to change the politics,” he said to National Journal last month. “The way I look at it is that leaders don’t follow the polls, leaders try to change the polls.”
The details of Ryan’s plan are not that far from the aims of at least one Republican presidential hopeful. As with Ryan’s past plans, Mitt Romney has expressed interest in block-granting Medicaid, privatizing Medicare, and cutting government spending. Romney is not necessarily running on overhauling entitlements or shrinking the size of the government in the same way as Ryan has used such positions to build his political profile, yet the initial sketches of their budget and tax proposals are not miles apart.
Once the budget is released, Ryan will need to win over enough conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill to pass his plan through the House. Ultimately, his budget is not expected to go far.
“If we have that kind of election, an affirming election, I feel that’s the best chance to break this logjam and get things done,” he said.
The Democrats surely feel the same about their position.
Billy House and Dan Friedman contributed
This article appears in the March 19, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.