Rand Paul’s Good Intentions

by Christian Schneider

Ask the regular man or woman on the street, and they can probably boil down the congressional voting process for you: If a senator likes what a bill is doing, he votes for it; if he doesn’t, he votes against.

That is, of course, unless a senator likes a bill’s goal so much that he votes against it because it “doesn’t go far enough.” Take Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold’s vote against the famous Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill of 2010. The bill slapped Wall Street with an oppressive new regulatory scheme, but the liberal Feingold voted no, as he apparently opposed anything short of strapping Wall Street executives to a chair and making them watch 72 straight hours of The Joy Behar Show.

Just days ago, quasi-libertarian Kentucky senator Rand Paul voted against Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to save Medicare for future generations by injecting market economics and personal choice into the program. Paul said he supports Ryan’s Medicare proposals but that Ryan’s bill “doesn’t go far enough.” He complained that the bill adds $6 trillion to the national debt over the next ten years. 

This is a bit like refusing to go on a date with Natalie Portman because you think Jessica Alba’s going to call you any day now. If enacted, Ryan’s bill would set America on a path toward fiscal solvency over the long term. The only reason the debt increases in the short term under the Ryan plan is because the bill doesn’t affect anyone currently under the age of 55, to avoid sharp disruptions in people’s lives.

Of course, to the cadre of debt-limit fetishists, Rand Paul’s plan makes perfect sense. But by opposing the phase-in of Ryan’s changes, Paul is endorsing a poison cocktail for the Republican party, opposing a commonsense reform that has a minuscule chance of passing in favor of one that has absolutely zero chance of seeing the light of day.

Amazingly, Paul said that another of the reasons he voted against the Ryan budget was that it hadn’t been sold to the public well enough: “One of the problems he’s having is it’s stuck in a whole big budget, with a lot to talk about, and it needs to be fully explained. They’re losing that battle in the public as far as the explanation.” You know what also doesn’t help the public message? Conservatives voting against it on the floor of the Senate.

The more practical path has been taken by Republican newcomer Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who has been rock solid on the debt-limit issue: Johnson even spearheaded a letter to President Obama urging him to introduce a budget that allocated spending within a $2.6 trillion debt ceiling. The letter was signed by 22 other senators, including Rand Paul. Yet supported the Ryan budget, calling Medicare “unsustainable without structural changes.”

It’s possible that Paul knew his vote wasn’t really needed, so he took the chance to make a well-intentioned statement about the disastrous effect of America’s debt load. That’s all well and good. But if he were the 60th vote to bring the Ryan plan to the floor of the Senate, would he vote the same way? Would he be comfortable with defending the status quo, in which Obamacare swamps America with trillions in debt and there is no fix for Medicare in sight?

There is a case to be made that Paul’s criticism of Ryan’s plan is productive; it demonstrates that the House budget is actually a modest compromise. But if Rand Paul is playing politics with his vote, it diminishes a senator who was elected because he told it to us straight.

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.