Ryan’s Choice

Published April 13, 2011

The most courageous aspect of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Path to Prosperity proposal is not its policy details. It is that the proposal was made at all.

In advancing a policy package that would put the U.S. fiscal house in order, Ryan is openly defying the “wisdom” shared by countless consultants, pollsters and party insiders, all of whom counseled against putting forward a budget that tackles entitlement reform.

The Wisconsin Republican’s rationale for his choice is simple: “This is why we were elected,” he says. Such thoughts make Washington uncomfortable, even those within his own party, where many staffers and members of Congress would rather sit on their hands and bide their time until the 2012 elections.

Ryan’s budget proposal likely will come to define the major policy debate for those elections.

Obama’s plan for the future is really no plan at all. Roundly criticized in the press for ignoring the challenging recommendations of the White House’s own fiscal commission, Obama is running scared, refusing to make any decisions that might reduce government payouts to various interest groups. His “stay the course” choice would push the nation further into never-ending, ever-increasing deficits.

Where the president has not led, Ryan will. The president’s bipartisan commission recommended $4 trillion in cuts to the deficit; Ryan calls for $6 trillion. These are cutbacks not only in discretionary spending but also in what he correctly calls “the drivers of our debt” — the third rail of Medicare and Medicaid.

In contrast to the unpredictable and unacceptable results of Obama’s health care overhaul — with its cost-shifting to states, waivers for cronies, unsustainable subsidies and deficit-reduction estimates shrinking on a monthly basis — Ryan proposes balanced, pragmatic reforms of both Medicare and Medicaid that have attracted bipartisan support in the past.

Ryan’s Medicare premium support system, designed with Democrat Alice Rivlin last year, applies the lessons of Medicare Part D in a bold reform that is probably too modest and politically pragmatic to solve the program’s long-term problems. But it’s a good start. For Medicaid, Ryan would convert it to block grants to the states, giving them more flexibility and holding them accountable for cost increases. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates Ryan’s plan would cut the deficit by more than double the most generous (and implausible) estimate for ObamaCare.

By pairing this with reforms of corporate welfare, food stamps, farm and energy subsidies, and the tax system, Ryan’s budget would achieve much lower spending, much lower taxes and much smaller deficits than Obama’s budget, in perpetuity.

Many of the establishment political elite are already pronouncing Ryan’s proposals foolhardy, a death knell for Republican political prospects. Of course, these long-entrenched leaders of opinion have failed to devise an alternative policy solution for our fiscal problems, the will to propose it and the courage to advocate it. They have made political careers out of avoiding hard choices, and under their watch the nation’s financial deficit has spiraled out of control.

This is what makes Ryan’s proposal so bold. It is not the policy choices within it, most of which are surprisingly balanced, moderate and pragmatic. It is that he chose to propose it at all.

Benjamin Domenech is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Health Care News. Pat Buchanan is off today.