Democrats are not very fond of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.). That’s no secret. But even liberals used to offer some faint praise for Ryan’s courage in writing a plan to reduce the deficit — before lambasting that very plan as a heartless assault on America’s kids and grandmothers.
Those days are likely gone forever now that Ryan has unveiled his 2012 budget proposal: “The Path to Prosperity,” a bold but politically risky plan to reduce the deficit by $4.4 trillion over ten years. It achieves big savings in part by significantly reforming entitlement programs, specifically Medicare and Medicaid. Now that Ryan holds real power in the House, he is a much bigger target, and Democrats are wasting no time attacking his budget, setting the tone for what is sure to be a very noxious debate in the months (and years) ahead.
On Tuesday, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, led the charge. “Behind the sunny rhetoric of reform, the Republican budget represents the rigid ideological agenda that extends tax cuts to the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of America — except this time on steroids,” Van Hollen told reporters at press conference. “That’s not courageous; it’s wrong.”
Throughout the day, while conservatives were heaping praise on Ryan’s effort, Democrats formed ranks on Capitol Hill, firing out statements and lining up at press conferences to denounce his budget as “the same tired old playbook” from the GOP. The unfailingly clever House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) took to calling it “a path to poverty.” Rep. Karen Bass (D., Calif.) railed against Ryan’s “path to despair” — which, if enacted, would “would kick seniors and children to the curb.”
But it was Van Hollen who assumed the lead role, and understandably so. He confirmed to reporters Tuesday morning that House Democrats would soon release their own “alternative budget.” Van Hollen was short on details, but indicated that the Democratic proposal would include “significant deficit reduction.”
It should be fairly easy to predict what their plan might look like, judging by the some of the most frequent attacks leveled against Ryan’s budget. First, Democrats hate the fact that Ryan failed to include dramatic tax increases in his budget. Expect to hear a lot of rehashing of the same debate that played out over the lame-duck session in December over the extension of the Bush-era tax rates. Obama’s budget raises taxes on high earners; Ryan’s lowers them.
Van Hollen seized on a statement from the co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission — former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former senator Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.) — that, despite praising Ryan’s “constructive contribution” to the debate, ultimately determined that it “falls short of the balanced, comprehensive approach needed” because it relies too heavily on spending cuts and not enough on revenue increases.
Health-care policy is another obvious sticking point for Democrats. For one, Ryan’s budget fully repeals and defunds Obamacare. Democrats, well aware of the new law’s flagging popularity, may not wish to relitigate the health-care debate, but in many ways Ryan’s budget has forced their hand. As President Obama has indicated, Democrats believe they’ve already done their part to address Medicare costs. Expect to hear many repeat the point that Van Hollen made Tuesday — that when Democrats made cuts to Medicare as part of health-care reform, Republicans ran aggressively against those cuts in 2010.
Van Hollen denounced Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare into a subsidized-voucher program as “Orwellian,” arguing that it was akin to “destroying the village in order to save it.” Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.) added that Ryan’s plan “should scare every senior in this country.” As Medicaid, which Ryan seeks to transform into a “block grant” system to give state governors greater flexibility in their budgets, there will likely be no end to the tales of children suffering under Ryan’s brutal regime.
Ryan and his colleagues are well aware of the political firestorm and Democratic demagoguery they are exposing themselves to by releasing such an audacious proposal. “As far as politically, it’s not safe,” says Rep. James Lankford (R., Okla.), a freshman member of the Budget Committee. “I don’t think I’ve found anyone who has said ‘that was the safe way to go.’ But I think it’s right.”
“We are giving them a political weapon to [use] against us,” Ryan said on Fox News Sunday
. “But they will have to lie and demagogue to make it a weapon. . . . Shame on them if they do that.”
The shame has already begun.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.