A federal budget plan, and reality

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For the second time in as many years, the House Republican leadership has put forward a deficit-cutting budget plan that’s more of a political statement than a governing blueprint. The proposed budget for fiscal 2013 promotes a long list of conservative policies that are only tangentially related to the federal fisc — for example, repealing new federal restrictions on Wall Street and ending the moratorium on offshore oil drilling. Even the proposals that are purely fiscal in nature rely on changes in law that Senate Democrats won’t support, such as repealing the 2010 healthcare reform law.

But then, the annual budgets proposed by the White House are largely political documents too. Besides, the author of the Republican resolution, Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), has said it isn’t intended to become law. The whole point of the exercise, Ryan said, was to give voters a clear choice of paths forward in November. At some point, however, lawmakers will have to set the politicking aside and come up with a long-term fiscal plan that both parties can support. Ryan’s proposal is not that plan.

Democrats are already focusing their protests on the big changes Ryan proposes for Medicare, starting in about a decade. But it’s not the draconian outline Ryan offered last year, which would have replaced Medicare with insurance subsidies for the elderly that probably wouldn’t have kept pace with the rising cost of medical care. The new plan, developed with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would preserve Medicare as an option but have private insurers compete with it for customers.


More problematic are Ryan’s proposals to require states to pick up a growing share of the cost of Medicaid, a joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor, and to limit federal spending to about 20% of the economy, which eventually would force painful trade-offs between honoring the increasing obligations to retirees (in the form of Social Security and Medicare benefits) and maintaining other federal programs. It’s also worth wondering why the House would spend time on a budget for 2013 when Congress enacted a 10-year spending plan last year that, unlike a budget resolution, has the force of law.

Ryan points in the right direction in many areas, such as calling for eliminating tax breaks and lowering rates, reforming farm subsidies and consolidating federal job-training programs. And he’s right to argue that Washington hasn’t done nearly enough to close the budget gap and bring its long-term debt problem under control. But the political reality in Washington is that highly partisan proposals don’t get enacted. As ambitious as his plan is, it seems fated to wind up in the same dustbin.