What Would Ryan Do?

by Reihan Salam

My Economics 21 colleague Jennifer Pollom has been writing a very helpful guide to understanding Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity.” For example, she explains the limits of what we can learn from a budget resolution:

Part of the difficulty in discerning what Ryan’s budget “plan” is lies in the basic construction of a budget resolution. Although Ryan has publicly embraced the resolution, the resolution itself reveals little. First, budget resolutions are not law. They are resolutions between both houses of Congress and serve as a blueprint for spending for the year or years to come. Essentially, they represent Congress’s willingness to bind itself to a tax and spending plan for a series of future years. A budget resolution is never signed by the President and, as Congress has shown for the last several years, they aren’t strictly required each year.

Why does this matter? Because a budget resolution doesn’t change the law. It only sets top line numbers for spending and revenues; it does not go into detail on what changes are to be made in order to achieve those top line figures. So in a given year a budget resolution might set a top line revenue number telling the Congress to collect $2.734 trillion, but it doesn’t dictate HOW those revenues are to be collected. It’s up to Congress to enact further legislation (or in many cases just leave laws in place) to achieve that number. In fact congressional committees can do whatever they want to achieve those spending or savings numbers, within the budget rules. Savvy budgeteers make good (if unexciting) livings deciphering what is probably in that number by divining what laws are set to expire, what actions congressional committees are likely to take, and what majority prerogatives are, but the fact remains that the budget resolution doesn’t spell it out.

Later in the piece, she delves into a number of policy areas addressed in the budget resolution.