Washington – Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, was not his usual even-tempered self this afternoon. At a joint press conference with his senate counterpart, Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a visibly agitated Ryan slammed President Obama’s $3.73 trillion budget proposal, calling it “debt on arrival.” The president’s failure to seriously address the federal deficit and the entitlement programs driving that deficit, Ryan argued, constituted “an abdication of leadership.”
“Americans expect their presidents to lead, they expect their presidents to take on the country’s biggest challenges, and arguably the biggest domestic challenge perhaps in the history of this country is this crushing burden of debt that is coming our way,” he said. “The president punted on the budget and he punted on the deficit. That’s not leadership.”
Sessions echoed Ryan’s disappointed in the lack of initiative from the White House. “We are faced with the difficulty of taking on something as complex as entitlements, as deeply emotional as entitlements, and the President of the United States is not even in the game, and doesn’t even suggest it has to be done?” he said. “I’m sure he didn’t want to have a debt crisis as big as he’s now finding, but leaders have to deal with the problems they’ve got, and we need his help.”
Just how bad was Obama’s proposal? Well, for one, even Andrew Sullivan hated it. And it was even worse than Republicans were expecting. And that’s saying something. “This [debt problem] requires bipartisanship at the end of the day,” Ryan said. “We were hoping for a centrist budget today to advance that kind of dialogue, and we got everything but that…It would be better if we did nothing than if we actually passed this budget.”
In particular, the Obama’s budget was a rebuke to the recommendations of his own fiscal commission, on which Ryan served (though he voted against its final plan). The commission’s co-chair, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, said the administration’s budget was “nowhere near where they will have to go to resolve our fiscal nightmare.” Indeed, the commission identified $4 trillion worth of deficit reduction measure over 10 years with the aim of heading off a fiscal catastrophe. Obama’s counter-offer? A mere $1.1 trillion in estimated saving over the next decade. And as Ryan pointed out, that number could become a lot smaller once the Congressional Budget Office takes a closer look at it.
The biggest complaint by far was over the fact that the president’s budget does nothing to touch the entitlement programs that are the primary drivers of the federal deficit. However, Ryan initially ducked repeated questions as to whether he would include entitlement reforms in his budget, which is due out this spring. “I can’t tell you what our budget’s going to be because we haven’t written it yet,” he said. “We are not interested in punting, we are interested in leading.” Even when pressed, he refused to give a straight answer. He merely alluded to the fact that he has been advocating entitlement reform “for quite some time’ and is one of the only members of congress to put forward a serious proposal — his “Roadmap for America.”
“Clearly we need to go there, but I’m not going to get into [specifics],” he said. “Anyone who knows anything about me knows we have to tackle entitlements or they’re going to tackle us.” But as Dan mentioned, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) was slightly more direct, suggesting that a Republican budget would include “very bold reforms” to entitlement programs.
Before Ryan can begin crafting his own budget, he must wait for the CBO to score the president’s proposal, which is likely to take several weeks. He’ll take it from there, and likely produce a document sometime in April. Until then, it will be interesting to watch House Republicans as they try to piece together a unified message on entitlement reform, to see if they are actually willing to follow through where the White House budget does not, or if like the president, they too will opt to punt.