Ryan’s Rope
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.