One of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s favorite phrases is “adult conversation.” As in, we need to have an adult conversation about the nation’s fiscal challenges. With the release of his budget resolution, Ryan is beginning the discussion even if his purported conversational partners on the other side of the aisle insist on banging their cups on their highchairs and wailing.
Three inescapable realities drive the federal budget: We spend too much on health care, we are growing older, and we face an alarming federal debt. Ryan is daring to tell the country how he’d react to this in a stark instance of reality-based budgeting. His implicit challenge to those who reject his solution is, “Fine, what’s yours?”
Health-care costs are far outpacing inflation, and Medicare is growing at twice the rate of the economy. The two trends are related: Medicare’s blank-check payment system contributes to soaring medical costs. Beginning in 2022, Ryan would give new Medicare beneficiaries a subsidy to buy their own insurance. It would bring consumer choice and competitive pressure to an area sorely lacking them. Maybe you think this reform of Medicare — which has an ungodly unfunded liability over the next 75 years — is too radical. Fine, what’s yours?
As we age as a society, the burden of maintaining our old-age entitlements falls more heavily on young workers. The Ryan budget notes that in 1950, 16.5 workers supported each Social Security recipient. In 2000, it was 3.4 workers. In 2040, it will be 2.1. Ryan’s budget would force the president, working with Social Security’s trustees, to submit a proposal to right the program’s fiscal balance. This path might strike you as too timid — or too bold. Fine, what’s yours?
The Ryan budget controls federal spending and brings it below 20 percent of GDP by 2015. It reduces the deficit $4.4 trillion compared with Pres. Barack Obama’s budget over the next ten years and reaches so-called primary balance — a balanced budget outside of interest payments on the debt — by 2015. Obama would keep adding to the debt at a prodigious clip, almost doubling it from its current $14 trillion to $26 trillion over ten years. Perhaps Ryan’s method of controlling the debt is not to your liking. Fine, what’s yours?
Ryan keeps tax revenue at the historic level of roughly 18 percent, and brings both the top personal and the top corporate tax rates down to 25 percent while eliminating deductions and loopholes. This reform — designed to make the tax code simpler and more pro-growth — might strike you as “unfair.” Fine, what’s yours?
The unspoken Democratic answer to all of the above questions is yet more taxes, coupled with price controls on health care. Democrats don’t want to be frank about it for political reasons. They cover for their own substantive vacuity with evasions and crude attacks on Ryan’s proposal as a budgetary death panel. Such is the lot of the adult in the room.
Paul Ryan is Washington’s answer to those Republican grown-ups out in the states, Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey. They all drench themselves in the details of policy, are unafraid to speak hard truths, and — in their own ways, in keeping with their different personalities — relish the art of public persuasion. No wonder the three of them are so often mentioned wistfully as (unlikely) potential presidential candidates.
As the chief executives of their states, Daniels and Christie have more power to enact policy into law than does Ryan. His budget is fundamentally an exemplary exercise. It demonstrates a comprehensive solution to the nation’s fiscal condition, without tax increases and without more heavy-handed government intervention in health care. Ryan needn’t sweep all before him to succeed, but merely survive — accomplishment enough, given his frankness on entitlements — to pass the baton to a Republican presidential candidate.
Perhaps you think this isn’t the best way to start an “adult conversion.” Fine, what’s yours?
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.