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Ryan’s Budget Matters, Even If It Goes Nowhere

Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget is a big story in Congress, even though it barely made it through the House Budget Committee, will take a battle to pass on the House floor and has zero chance of being embraced as is, or in any facsimile, in the Senate.

So why is it so big?

First, the Wisconsin Republican’s plan is close at this point to being official GOP policy because presidential candidate Mitt Romney has embraced it. Second, it not only presents a set of broad principles but claims a set of details that offer serious insight into what Republicans have in mind if they capture all the reins of power in November. Third, even if not embodied in a joint resolution, the Ryan budget, if it passes the House, will set out instructions to the Appropriations Committee that will require its subcommittees to fit within its strictures.

Why does the latter point matter?

“The Perils of Pauline” was a wildly popular series of shorts created in 1914; in each one, the heroine, Pauline, ended up in an impossibly precarious and treacherous situation — only to be saved miraculously from death or dismemberment. Watching Congress lurch from one near government shutdown to another, to a near catastrophic default to another near-shutdown is déjà Pauline all over again. And the more I examine the Ryan budget and find out about its details, the more I see another set of perilous episodes ahead.

First, of course, is the decision by Ryan to garner support from Republican Study Committee and tea party forces by putting in discretionary domestic spending caps that cut significantly below the numbers agreed to by the leaders of both parties and enacted by the members of both chambers in the Budget Control Act last year — while also countermanding the sequester-driven cuts mandated for defense.

Some argue that the levels agreed to were ceilings, not floors. But that is not the understanding of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), among others. To escape the disaster of a breach in the debt limit, both parties in both chambers made a deal, and that deal is now, via the Ryan budget, declared null and void. The task of Appropriations subcommittees will be much harder — but if they manage to make cuts to meet the new levels, they will meet resistance in the Senate and create another set of confrontations later in the year over spending, along with a real chance of a partial shutdown in October.

But that’s not all, folks. Politico’s David Rogers has pointed out that the Ryan budget also opens up another sore from an earlier confrontation over disaster relief. That “Perils of Pauline” near-shutdown was over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) insistence that, for the first time in a serious way, federal disaster relief would have to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. That confrontation, right after a series of disasters, was resolved by a deal that put on spending restraint but also added a limited cushion for potential disasters. That deal is also rendered null and void by the Ryan plan.

House Republicans do not like the looming sequesters. Neither do I. I have yet to meet anyone who does. There is a good reason why: They were designed to be detested and to be bad public policy — mindless across-the-board cuts in domestic spending areas would be anathema to most Democrats, as cuts in defense would be to most Republicans, and to avoid the cuts, the super committee would be impelled to find a better and broader deal. It did not.

There are good reasons for Congress to pick up the resulting pieces and find ways to overcome the bad policy of sequesters — by finding better ways to make up the difference in deficit reduction. There is a large principle at work here. Deal-making is the heart of the legislative process. When you make a deal, you keep it — unless there is a mutual decision to reopen negotiations. Breach the trust over deal-making and bad things follow.

I might find the “never mind what we promised last year” approach more palatable if the overall Ryan budget were a genuine, straightforward and honest road map to a balanced budget in a reasonable form. But, as many commentators have now pointed out, it is not.

The budget that Romney has wholly embraced includes $500 billion in Medicare cuts over the coming decade, the same amount for which he criticizes President Barack Obama. The tax plan is no plan at all. Ryan required the Congressional Budget Office to accept his premises to show it would result in sharp deficit reduction over the coming decades — but one of those premises is that all discretionary spending, defense and domestic, would shrink to 3.75 percent of the gross domestic product in 2050.

Since the budget both protects and enhances defense, and with Romney providing a template by pledging to put a floor of 4 percent of GDP under defense, that would mean zero government except for defense and entitlements — no air traffic control system, no FBI, no National Institutes of Health and so on. C’mon.

I like and admire Ryan. He is a nice guy, smart as a whip, more straightforward than most, genuinely concerned with making public policy. He is known back home, in his labor-heavy competitive district, for gutsy straight talk. That makes this Ryan budget an even deeper disappointment and sets up the rest of this Congress not for a breather, or a bipartisan way forward, but for more confrontation, more bitterness and less real deliberation.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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