The deficit doesn't care what you say, only what you do
The occasion of Rep. Paul Ryan winning an award for fiscal responsibility has left a lot of people wondering where the Paul Ryan who seemed to care so much for fiscal responsibility has gone. In recent months, Ryan has refused to sign onto the fiscal commission's final report, voted for the tax deal that extended the Bush tax cuts (and some other tax cuts) at a cost of more than $800 billion to the deficit, and backed a series of new rules in the House that made it vastly easier to increase the deficit by cutting taxes and vastly harder to decrease it by raising them, and helped the GOP lift their own rules to try and repeal the health-care legislation without offsetting the increase that would mean for the deficit. Asked by NBC's Meredith Vieira to name a specific program he'd cut, Ryan dodged. "I can't tell you the answer to that because, as a budget committee person, we simply lower the cap and then those things go down," he said. Greg Ip wonders what has happened to the Ryan that deficit hawks thought they knew:
The charitable interpretation is that he is pursuing a more patient strategy of adhering to the party line until Democrats cave on entitlements, and then he will put tax increases on the table. The less charitable interpretation is that as his prominence in the party has risen, he has morphed from a principled fiscal hawk to an old-school "starve the beast" Republican for whom lower taxes always trump deficit reduction. Deficit hawks earn their feathers by championing balanced budgets even when it crosses its own party's priorities; by that standard, Mr. Ryan has work to do.
If you ask Ryan's office about this, you'll get an answer that sounds, at least to me, a lot like Ip's less charitable interpretation. Ryan's position is that fiscal responsibility is about more than deficit arithmetic. If government gets bigger, that's bad for the economy, too, even if it gets bigger while balancing revenues against spending. In other words, "lower taxes always trump deficit reduction." Or at least they do in every situation Ryan has been confronted with so far.
The reality, however, is that even this position, which I'd consider quite irresponsible, does not explain Ryan's recent actions: It would've been easy enough to pass a rule yoking tax cuts to spending cuts. Then Republicans -- led by Ryan -- could lower taxes, shrink the state and balance the budget all at the same time. They chose not to do that. Nor did they demand cuts as part of the tax deal. If you follow the policy rather than the rhetoric, you don't see a party or a politician will to make hard choices in service of a small and more fiscally responsible budget. All you see is a commitment to tax cuts, deficits be damned.
That position would be fair enough if the GOP had run on it. But they didn't. The two lodestars of the GOP's economic case against President Obama -- a case for which Ryan was the lead prosecutor -- were policy uncertainty and deficits. Here Ryan is making the case in Oregon:
Policymakers urgently need to advance an agenda for growth -- removing the obstacles to job creation and the paralyzing uncertainty from Washington. Both parties contributed to the current hardships -- and both parties helped plant the seeds of the crisis on the horizon: a fiscal time bomb from the explosive growth of government debt.
Since winning the election, the GOP -- with Ryan's support -- has increased budget deficits and policy uncertainty alike. They chose a temporary tax cut rather than a permanent one, and also sought the repeal of the health-care bill and a continuing resolution rather than real appropriations bills. All of that increased policy uncertainty. As for the deficit, the tax deal increased it by $850 billion. That's larger than any other single piece of legislation signed by Obama.
Ryan will point out that the real budget problem is health-care driven spending, and he's got a long-term plan to deal with that. People can argue about whether his Roadmap, which operates by the principle of "we simply lower the cap and then those things go down," will actually work. But fiscal responsibility isn't measured by what you want. It's measured by what you do. The reality is that every Democrat who voted to cut Medicare by more than $500 billion and raise taxes by more than $400 billion in order to offset the cost of the health-care bill cast a tougher vote for fiscal responsibility than Ryan has. And Ryan, who voted for Medicare Part D without demanding that its spending be offset, has criticized them endlessly for it.
In the coming year, Ryan will be charged with writing the budget. So he'll have plenty of opportunities to chart a different path. And perhaps he will. But for now, he doesn't deserve any awards.
Photo credit: By Jay Mallin/Bloomberg
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