There’s a lot to like about Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. It cuts some spending. It flattens the tax code down to just two individual marginal tax rates. It also includes some innovative policies designed to halt the unsustainable growth of health care entitlement spending. However, on balance, the budget is disappointing for fiscal conservatives for two main reasons: It waives the spending restraint that was agreed to in last year’s debt limit deal, and it doesn’t balance the budget until 2040. Broken promises and unbalanced budgets as far as the eye can see are neither good policy nor a good campaign rallying cry.
Last year, an agreement was reached in which Republicans gave President Obama a massive increase in the debt ceiling, in exchange for promised spending cuts that supposedly had “real teeth.” As part of the deal, Congressman Ryan and most Republicans voted to require an annual spending cap and $110 billion in automatic spending cuts for next year – otherwise known as “sequestration” – if the so-called “super-committee” failed to find $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.
Since the predictable collapse of the super-committee, the House GOP should have been working toward a budget proposal that allows for the sequester to take place for the coming year. Such a budget would include the $110 billion in reductions. Ryan’s budget achieves vastly less. It contains $19 billion in discretionary savings and, at most, $53 billion in cuts to mandatory spending — $38 billion short. Thus, it leaves House Republicans breaking the terms of the deal they agreed to just seven months ago.
That debt ceiling agreement provided that half of those cuts would come from defense spending, and half from non-defense spending. Some conservatives object to that level of defense cuts. Fine. The key to the agreement was securing the total $110 billion reduction in spending, not which part of the budget was cut. If some want to rearrange the location of the cuts, that would be fine, as long as the overall magnitude of the spending restraint was sustained.
House leaders claim they are making more overall cuts. However, they are clearly short of the requirements for next year and are pushing the deepest cuts out into the future. We’ve seen this movie before. Lots of times. In other words, they are kicking the can down the road . . . again. No matter how you slice it, the Ryan budget breaks the promise of spending restraint that was agreed to in exchange for raising the debt limit. And make no mistake, we’re not just arguing over $38 billion. Now that this budget breaks that deal, both parties will work to unravel the entire $1.2 trillion in sequestered cuts. Don’t be surprised if the full unraveling happens later this year.
A group of fiscal conservatives in the House, the Republican Study Committee, has proposed a budget that balances in five years. It contains strong tax reform and spending restraint. In addition, the RSC deals with Social Security, an entitlement program left untouched by the Ryan budget. And just like the Ryan budget, the RSC plan shifts the burden of the sequester away from defense, but preserves, and in fact exceeds, the overall spending reduction level agreed to last year. That is the right way forward.
By waiving the sequester and refusing to balance the budget until 2040, the Ryan budget and the Republican Party are playing a dangerous game. It is hard to have confidence that our long-term fiscal challenges will be met responsibly when the same Congress that passed the August debt deal wants to ignore it less than one year later.
America does not have thirty years to balance the budget. We may not have ten. We hope that fiscal conservatives will take a harder look at the House GOP budget, and ask themselves if they can and should demand more.
President – Club for Growth