Original Link: http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/12/the-ryan-budgets-step-backward/
By Ross Douthat
The first long term budget proposed by Paul Ryan, shortly after the Republicans retook the House of Representatives, was a major step forward for conservative policy thinking: It cashed in the Tea Party wave with a serious commitment to entitlement reform, and put every House Republican on record supporting the kind of Medicare changes that will be necessary if small-government conservatism takes its own premises seriously, and doesn’t just want to be the partisan arm of the AARP.
The second Ryan budget, proposed a few months before the Wisconsin congressman was chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate, was similar to the first one in outline. But it refined the original Medicare proposal and substantially improved it, moving in a direction similar to the bipartisan proposal that Ryan and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden had authored, which made more plausible assumptions about both the substance and the selling of Medicare reform.
There were two obvious ways that the Ryan Budget 3.0., which rolled out today, could have further improved on its predecessors. The new budget could have beefed up its Medicare proposals by phasing in reform sooner, instead of continuing to set a ten-year gap between passage and implementation and exempting everyone over 55 from the new regime. Alternatively, it could have addressed the various problems and implausibilities in the non-Medicare portions of the budget roadmap — by making fewer not-gonna-happen promises on discretionary spending cuts, by offering a real alternative to/replacement for the Obama health care bill, or by making the sketch of revenue-neutral tax reform more plausible by setting the proposed new tax rates higher than 10 percent and 25 percent. The first option would have made for trickier politics but better policy; the latter options would have made for better policy and politics alike.
The actual budget, unfortunately, took a step backward instead. In effect, it sacrificed seriousness for “seriousness,” by promising to reach budgetary balance not over the long term (as budgets 1.0 and 2.0 did) but in a ten-year window. This is not going to happen, and more importantly there’s no reason why it needs to happen: Modest deficits are perfectly compatible with fiscal responsibility, and restructuring the biggest drivers of our long-term debt is a much more important conservative goal than holding revenues and outlays equal in the year 2023. What’s more, the quest for perfect balance leaves the House G.O.P. officially committed to a weird, all-pain version of Obamanomics — in which, for instance, we keep the president’s tax increases and Medicare cuts while eliminating his health care law’s assistance to the uninsured.
The result is a document that’s arguably more unrealistic than the previous versions of the Ryan budget, and that does little or nothing to bridge the gap between the Congressional G.O.P. and the electorate that just re-elected Barack Obama. To some extent, this gap exists because of Ryan’s own ideological commitments, but as Jim Pethokoukis points out, at least some of the ideas that would have improved this blueprint are ideas that the House budget chairman himself has championed in the past. The bigger issue is that many conservative House Republicans plainly feel like they’ve already been forced to compromise repeatedly of late — on questions like the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, and so on — and so they want their official budget to take a more absolutist stand. Hence the quest for ten-year balance, and the promise of pain on every front except (of course) marginal tax rates.
But those choices make this a document whose latest revisions are primarily directed inward, offering reassurances that the ideological line is still intact. To those outside the House Republican bubble, meanwhile, the biggest message that Ryan 3.0 sends is this: If the aftermath of 2012 produces fresh G.O.P. thinking on domestic policy, don’t expect it to start in the House.