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Ryan Budget Will Get Still More Conservative

The House budget resolution that has served as a manifesto of Republican Party principles in the past three years is about to get still more conservative.

The fiscal 2015 spending plan House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., plans to release will be filled with an ambitious set of policy provisions aimed at resetting the country’s fiscal order and, perhaps more immediately, setting a party framework for the midterm elections this fall.

The turn to the right on budget issues comes in part because of a changed economic baseline that will make the goal of balancing the budget within a decade more difficult. But it’s also because uniting the GOP caucus behind the policies may be more difficult than it was last year.

Compared with the budget adopted by the House last year (H Con Res 25), the upcoming plan needs about $1.2 trillion in additional deficit reduction to balance in 10 years. The demand for a balanced budget is tougher now because of the Congressional Budget Office’s revised estimate of what the government would spend under existing laws.

Lawmakers say the new budget blueprint will recommend deeper and more accelerated cuts in spending necessary to make up for slower projected revenue growth over the next decade.

That could take the form of deeper cuts to Medicaid, which would be converted to a block grant program in the House budget, or from speeding up the conversion of food stamps into a block grant program. Last year’s budget sought 10-year savings of $810 billion from block granting Medicaid, $636 billion from canceling the Medicaid expansion in the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), and $125 billion from block granting food stamps.

Even balancing in 10 years may not be enough for some conservatives.

“When they say 10 years, it’s really 11 years compared to the one last year,” Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp said. “I told them I was leaning no.” Huelskamp said he would be more sympathetic to a budget resolution if House leaders allowed votes on a tax overhaul and a conservative health care plan.

Hard-liners such as Huelskamp may be critical to whether the plan even gets a floor vote because of the tough numbers Republican may face on passage in the chamber.

Republicans will need up to 217 votes at present to adopt the budget resolution. That simple majority is almost impossible to get without at least 46 of the 62 Republicans who opposed the December budget deal, many of them conservatives who objected because the plan raised the previous spending levels set under the sequester.

The budget resolution also could draw flak from moderate Republicans who are worried about being attacked by Democrats during the election season for voting to cut Medicare and other spending programs.

Even last year, Ryan’s fiscal 2014 budget resolution passed with only six votes to spare, 221-207. Ten Republicans voted against it, some because it did not reduce spending fast enough, others out of concern about its proposed changes to Medicare, what they viewed as insufficient support for defense or other spending cuts.

The budget resolution will be similar to past versions in its overall framework. But it will have less immediate practical effect, since it will not establish the discretionary spending top line.

Instead, the plan will abide by the $1.014 trillion discretionary spending limit, as well as $521 billion defense and $492 billion non-defense caps, in the two-year budget agreement Ryan negotiated with Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., last year.

Murray declared a budget resolution unnecessary this year, because the top line is already set.

But in the House, members of both parties say a budget resolution is still important as a statement of the policies that a party would pursue if it were in control of government.

“Budgets are always visionary documents,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., vice chairman of the Budget Committee. “It’s laying out the vision for how to reform the programs and save Medicare, or to save Medicaid, as opposed to letting them wither on the vine, which is what the president does and what Democrats when they do budgets do.”

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., another Budget member, said although Congress and President Barack Obama succeeded in cutting federal operational or discretionary spending and reached agreement on expiring tax cuts at the start of last year, they have not made the progress he wants to see in addressing the fastest growing government programs.

“You really do need to have this discussion about entitlement reform,” Cole said. “That’s what’s driving the budget deficit.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on Budget, said the GOP plan will trigger “an important debate for the country, even though it will not have an immediate impact on decisions over the next several months.

“We look forward to that debate because we think putting tax breaks for wealthy special interests over investments in our kids’ education and our national infrastructure is a lopsided set of priorities,” he said.

While much of the deficit reduction in the GOP budget will come from curbing the growth of federal health care spending and other mandatory programs, the plan also will restrain discretionary spending. That would come through extending spending caps through 2024 and possibly by lowering proposed discretionary spending below the post-sequester caps in the 2011 deficit reduction agreement (PL 112-25) after 2015.

From a technical standpoint, the growing cost of spending in programs actually works to the advantage of balancing the budget, budget experts say. Proposing the repeal of the health care law, for example, would save more in 2024, the last year of the upcoming budget plan, than it would have saved in 2023, the last year of the previous budget.

Few if any changes are expected in a GOP proposal to partially privatize Medicare, converting it into a premium support system where beneficiaries would receive a federal subsidy and choose among competing health care plans that include traditional Medicare. As in past budgets, the proposal is likely to keep the cutoff age at 55, meaning anyone above that age would remain in the current Medicare system unless they chose otherwise.

The budget also could save a few dollars from tweaks of welfare and job training consolidation proposals in past resolutions. But the plan is not likely to contain an explicit, comprehensive welfare overhaul proposal growing out of an anti-poverty report that Ryan issued earlier this month. Ryan wants to introduce some poverty related initiatives later this year.

No proposed changes to Social Security are expected in the budget. Many in the GOP favor modifications to the program that would eliminate a growing imbalance between the trust fund’s revenue and the benefits that are paid out.

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