Paul Ryan's song and dance

Our view: The House budget chairman's highly partisan spending proposal would cut taxes for the rich and benefits for the middle class, but close the deficit? Not likely

March 20, 2012

If Republicans are getting ready to turn an election-year corner, settle on a presidential nominee and begin broadening their political message beyond the reality-challenged segments of the GOP base, Rep. Paul Ryan clearly didn't get the message.

The $3.5 trillion spending plan the House budget chairman released Tuesday morning is a great deal like what Mr. Ryan and his tea-party-endorsed colleagues in the House offered last year — with a bit less detail in areas that got him and his party in so much trouble last year, like cuts in Medicare benefits for senior citizens.

One could make a checklist: Tax cuts that favor the rich? Included. Drastic cuts to discretionary programs? Absolutely. Leave the Pentagon alone? Do you even have to ask?

If President Barack Obama's budget proposal released weeks ago was science fiction with no possibility of passage, then the Ryan plan is an absolute fantasy. The congressman believes the nation can drastically lower tax rates — he would have just two income tax brackets of 10 percent and 25 percent — while slicing the deficit by $400 billion in the first year alone.

How? Chiefly by closing some unstated tax loopholes and cutting heavily into spending in a way that he claims would juice the economy like some kind of experimental rocket fuel.

Sorry, but most Americans aren't buying into that con game. It would take closing a loophole like the mortgage interest rate deduction and a whole lot more big and beloved ones to achieve anything close to what Mr. Ryan is promising — along with truly brutal treatment of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Make no mistake, deficit reduction is achievable. But it would require, as noted by President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, simultaneously raising taxes and reducing spending — including entitlement programs. Mr. Obama has shown a willingness to cut some spending and raise some taxes, but his proposals have generally left too many sacred cows alone.

Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, holds onto the truly logic-defying belief that the nation can diet by eating the cake of tax cuts for the rich. That notion plays great in Republican strongholds, but others are bound to ask: Just who ends up footing the bill under the GOP budget plan? Clearly, it won't be the wealthiest among us.

Here's our prediction. For the remainder of this week, Mr. Ryan will bounce around some friendly venues like Fox News and pull out graphs and charts demonstrating that his plan would eventually wipe out the deficit. The fine print about the creative accounting methods needed to make it work will be too small for viewers to read.

The House will eventually pass something very much like what he has offered and bemoan the Senate's inaction (as if the Ryan budget was anything but a political treatise and actually deserved serious consideration). In the fall elections, Republicans will use the Ryan plan to back up their case that the budget can be balanced without raising taxes at all.

This, of course, lands us exactly where the nation has been for years now — polarized Democrats and Republicans finding absolutely no common ground, and the possibility of real deficit reduction seemingly beyond the reach of a politically gridlocked Congress. The only bright spot: a gradually improving economy is going to slowly raise tax revenues and, if spending is constrained, help bring a bit more balance to the federal ledger without any major policy moves.

Mr. Ryan is right about at least one of his talking points, however. Mr. Obama has raised the deficit more than his predecessor. He's been forced to by the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The recession would have been all the more brutal if the federal government had insisted on major reductions in spending and taken even more economic activity off the table.

But as the economy grows and the unemployment rate continues to fall, it's time the U.S. was put on a road to greater fiscal discipline. On that point, Republicans and Democrats ought to be able to agree. The problem is that the Ryan budget doesn't accomplish this. It's just another absolutist approach to the problem that only underscores his party's inflexibility and helps ensure that nothing of significance happens in 2012 and perhaps beyond.

That's great for GOP primaries but not so good for appealing to Democrats and independents, the voters the party's nominee will need to defeat the incumbent this fall.

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