Ryan’s Rope

by Quin Hillyer
The budget chairman hangs conservatives out to dry.

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan has now accomplished the astonishing task of pushing House Republicans substantially to the left of the Senate GOP. His budget deal, announced Tuesday night, was achieved by shutting conservative Senate Republicans out of negotiations, by resorting to the old trick of spending now while claiming savings later, by ignoring a symbolically important budgetary red line, and by treating as Democratic “concessions” things to which even Democratic budgeteers already had agreed.

The chess equivalent of Ryan’s deal would be trading a castle for a mere pawn. No wonder conservatives are feeling rooked.

One need not have been a “de-funder” absolutist (I wasn’t one) to oppose this agreement. First, though, perhaps a little historical perspective is in order. In the long run, the realistic conservative “baseline” for domestic appropriations should be fiscal year 2000 — the last full “normal” budget that was signed by President Bill Clinton, certainly no hard-hearted slouch in the empathy department. It was the final year in which Clinton and the then-Republican Congress were in a political stasis, with neither having a marked advantage because both were battered and bruised by the just-concluded impeachment process; it was also a year, arithmetically, where spending came in at a point between the heady first two years of the “Gingrich Congress” and the full-fledged spending blowout for fiscal year 2001 (legislated in calendar year 2000) in which both parties lost all restraint while trying to buy voting constituencies for the knife’s-edge Bush–Gore election year.

In FY2000, domestic appropriations came in at $283.6 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $384.6 billion today. Even adjusting further, for population growth — a surrender to Democratic arguments that is nowhere near fully warranted, but adopted here in order to give Ryan the widest leeway — a reasonably generous federal government with generous, Clintonian sensitivities would spend no more than $431.8 billion. Instead, the Ryan deal allows for $491.8 billion.

Granted, a lot of political water has gone under the bridge in 14 years, but this $60 billion difference in just one year (a hugely significant 14 percent higher than reasonable) provides a good proxy for just how out of whack domestic appropriations have become, and helps give statistical warrant for severe conservative angst.

Still, politics is the art of the possible, and Ryan’s defenders say he was dealt a poor hand. Perhaps — but it wasn’t as poor as they suggest. First, the bottom line was that a “no deal” stance would have locked in $22 billion more of domestic discretionary savings in 2014, and $32 billion over two years, than Ryan would now give away. That’s not just a “rounding error”; the one-year loss could fund almost the entire Interior Department along with the Environmental Protection Agency and “related agencies.”

At the very worst, Ryan surely could have succeeded politically by holding spending below the key symbolic line of $1 trillion for all appropriations (including for defense) for each of the next two years. No non-crisis American government has yet exceeded that line, and if Ryan really did need to cut a deal, it would have made sense to keep that record intact. That’s what good negotiators do: They grab hold of obvious demarcation points that work in their favor. Instead, Ryan’s deal would spend $1.01 trillion in 2014 and rise steadily thereafter.

So, what did Ryan accomplish for conservatives in return? On the domestic side, precious little. He touts various pension reforms as important advances, but in truth, Democrats long ago included most of these changes in their own budget proposals. These reforms, therefore, hardly should count as a Democratic “concession” — especially since they won’t even touch current civilian employees, while nicking military personnel immediately.

Ryan also claims, via inventive legerdemain, a net deficit reduction of $23 billion overall ($85 billion in fees and savings minus $62 billion in new spending). This is balderdash. It doesn’t count probably $8 billion in extra interest payments. It doesn’t count $8 billion that immediately will be given back in the form of an amendment providing the “doc fix” for Medicare reimbursement. And it relies on half of the deficit reduction coming in 2022–23, beyond the window of the original Budget Control Act under which sequestration was enacted.

Indeed, for the duration of the Obama presidency, the deficit would actually rise, with none of the net “savings” occurring until at least 2017. Once again, Congress would play Wimpy to the taxpayers’ Popeye, promising to pay Tuesday for a hamburger today.

Plenty of additional aspects of this agreement should frustrate conservatives, but 1) discussing them would involve getting too deeply into the weeds and 2) the nature of political compromise does of course demand small concessions, so let’s just ascribe them to the normal detritus of negotiations.

What is not the normal detritus is what comes from the reckless and high-handed jettisoning of all input from erstwhile allies who by rule and custom have reason to be part of negotiations. In this case, Ryan almost completely shut out the Republican senators on the conference committee appointed on October 16 specifically to work out the terms of a budget deal. Conservatives thus not only were denied the input of stalwarts such as Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, and Wyoming’s Mike Enzi but also lost the voice of the ranking Senate Republican on the Budget Committee, the excellent Jeff Sessions. Indeed, most of the official conferees learned of the deal only after reading press reports that it had been reached.

And with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell already having signaled a determination to stand firm on sequester-level domestic spending, this slap in the face of Senate Republicans amounted to a particularly low blow against conservatives. The one time the Senate GOP seemed to have some backbone, Ryan glued its underside to the bench.

It’s true that McConnell has been known to undercut Ryan in the past. But Toomey, Johnson, and especially ranking member Sessions surely should be owed more respect than Ryan afforded them. It is almost unheard of for a ranking member of the upper chamber to be so shunted aside. (Just after I wrote the previous sentence, my e-mail inbox lit up with an unexpected press release from Sessions formally opposing the deal.) This snub by Ryan is an affront to bicameral comity, to tradition, to “regular order,” and most especially to responsible conservatives who may devoutly wish to avoid brinkmanship yet still think far better terms could be gained.

None of the aforementioned analysis should detract from the real need to ease sequestration on the Pentagon, nor does it definitively determine the wisest political course for conservatives now that Chairman Ryan has put us behind a political eight-ball. As the most recent vice-presidential standard-bearer, and one enthusiastically fêted by conservatives at the time, Ryan makes it even easier than usual for the media to portray any critics from the right as radicals or nihilists. With the conservative grassroots already under attack from the Chamber of Commerce and other moneyed Republican interests, Ryan’s budgetary Bigfoot act stomps even more harshly on the political Right.

We had a right to expect better treatment, and we have good reason to demand a better budget.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow of the Center for Individual Freedom. He served during the “Gingrich Congress” as press secretary for the House Appropriations Committee.

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