House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) will unveil the latest iteration of the GOP budget later today, kicking off a fresh round of fiscal sparring in Washington. A few things to watch out for:
Ryan’s comeback Since returning to the House following his unsuccessful vice-presidential bid, Ryan has kept a relatively low public profile, opting to work behind the scenes on Capitol Hill and serving as liaison between House leadership and conservative members. The budget debate will force him back into the limelight, which Republicans are more than happy to see. “He’s obviously the best spokesman we have on these issues,” remarks one GOP aide.
It could also fuel speculation about Ryan’s future ambitions, whether that means running for president in 2016 or pursuing a role in House leadership. However, Ryan has already sought to put a damper on such conjecture. “I’m the chairman of the budget committee, and I represent the first district of Wisconsin,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “I should focus on that.”
A Balanced Approach Unlike past efforts, this year’s GOP budget will reach balance within a ten-year period (without raising taxes), a long-sought goal of conservatives. “This budget will return the term ‘balance’ from political slogan to actual fiscal concept,” says Doug Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and president of the American Action Forum.
However, as Ryan told reporters last week, “it doesn’t take enormous changes in our budget to get there.” That is because it will incorporate recent deficit-reduction agreements, including the Budget Control Act of 2011, the automatic spending cuts under sequestration, and, perhaps most controversially, the $600 billion in tax increases negotiated to avert the fiscal cliff earlier this year.
This year’s budget will reduce spending by $4.6 trillion, which is roughly the same amount as last year’s effort. And it is hardly the drastic austerity program that Democrats are sure to accuse Republicans of promoting. Instead of increasing federal spending by 4.9 percent over the next decade on the current trajectory, Ryan will propose growing spending at the more modest rate of 3.4 percent. Instead of spending $46 trillion over the next ten years, Ryan will propose spending $41 trillion.
Entitlement reform Ryan ultimately opted against proposing an earlier implementation date for Medicare premium support, as some reports had speculated he would do. This year’s budget will call for many of the same entitlement- and welfare-reform proposals as last year’s (including the full repeal of Obamacare), meaning that Republicans should expect an onslaught of hysterical, poll-tested rhetoric from Democrats accusing them of trying to balance the budget “on the backs of the middle class and most vulnerable.”
Democrats, hoping to build on their electoral success in 2012 by making a push to retake the House in 2014, have already indicated that attacking Ryan’s budget will be key to that effort. Ryan, for his part, rejects the idea that championing bold entitlement reforms cost Republicans the White House in 2012. “We won the senior vote,” he said on Sunday. “I did dozens of Medicare town halls in states like Florida, explaining how these are the best reforms to save the shrinking Medicare program, and we are confident this is the way to go.”
Finally, a Democratic alternative For the first time since retaking the House in 2010, Republicans will have from Senate Democrats an alternative budget proposal with which to compare their own, and they are thrilled at the opportunity. The Democratic plan is unlikely to ever reach balance and will almost certainly rely heavily on tax increases and budget gimmicks to produce most of its savings.
Republicans in Congress are fed up with constantly being on defense when it comes to budget issues. They believe their truly “balanced” plan will compare favorably with one that raises taxes and fails to make a dent in the burgeoning federal debt. They also look forward to forcing incumbent red-state Democrats who face reelection in 2014 to cast politically difficult votes on spending and tax issues. Presumably Senate Democrats will have to vote for their own budget; by contrast, President Obama’s past several budget proposals received zero Democratic votes in Congress.
Obama’s reaction Facing a precipitous decline in his approval rating, the president has suddenly decided to reach out to congressional Republicans in an apparent effort to forge a long-term budget compromise. Last week, Obama dined with a group of GOP senators and had lunch with Ryan, who said it was “the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with the president lasting more than, say, two minutes.” Obama is scheduled to meet with the full House and Senate Republican conferences later this week. “This is going to require the Senate and the president to come to the table, and they simply haven’t,” Holtz-Eakin says. “We’ll know the sincerity level of the president if his outreach continues when his approval rating goes up and not down.”
Ryan, who has said he wants to lay the groundwork for a “down payment on the debt crisis,” will be anxiously watching the president’s response to the GOP budget. “Will he resume attacking Republicans and impugning our motives?” he asked on Fox News Sunday. “Or will he sincerely change and try and find common ground, try and work with Republicans to get something done? That’s what we hope happens.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.