It Should Have Been the Ryan Budget, All Along

by Daniel Foster

As the debt showdown plays out, I’m thinking more and more that the Republican play was to have demanded the Ryan budget as the starting point for negotiations on the debt deal. It’s too late now, of course, but consider:

— The Ryan budget has already passed the House, making it less likely that the GOP “no” caucus, disinclined to vote for any deal that raises the debt ceiling at all, would have passed over a chance to enshrine Ryan as law.

— It’s a BFD of a debt-reducer. The Ryan budget would cut non-defense discretionary spending by by $1.8 trillion over the next decade, while total spending would decrease by $5.8 trillion over the same period. That’s bigger than even President Obama’s “Grand Bargain.”

— The public-opinion battle over the Ryan plan had already been waged, and if not exactly won, at least fought to a draw. Contrast with the PR battle over the current talks, which the GOP is losing badly.

— It would have made the spectacle of “Cut, Cap, and Balance” unnecessary. You hear a lot of talk about how passing CCB is important because it shows what Republicans are for. But the Republicans have already done this by passing the Ryan budget. To do it again is redundant and a waste of precious time (which is not on the GOP’s side here). Not least because (1) the “Cut” part of “Cut, Cap, and Balance” is based on the Ryan budget, and (2) the “Cap” and “Balance” parts rely on the passage of a constitutional amendment at a time when it is not clear there are majorities for any plan in either house of Congress, let alone two-thirds majorities. I’m not convinced that capping spending at 18 percent of GDP (2001 levels, roughly) would do anything but spawn new, ingenious accounting tricks while ensuring that spending never gets down below 18 percent. But let’s leave that aside for the moment. If it’s in fact a policy worth fighting for in Congress, the eve of a potential crisis that the GOP looks sure to be resoundingly blamed for is not the time to do it. Worse yet, it looks increasingly likely from where I’m sitting that CCB votes will be used to provide political cover in advance of an attempt to pass the McConnell plan — which just about nobody likes. None of this would have been necessary if the GOP had built their negotiations around the Ryan budget.

Could the Ryan budget have been passed wholesale as part of a debt-limit deal? Of course not. The GOP probably would have had to decouple the longer-term entitlement stuff and do a lot of horse-trading with Democrats on the composition of the cuts. But considering that we’re now looking at no entitlement reforms and $1.5 trillion in discretionary cuts whose composition is to be determined largely by Joe Biden and congressional Democrats, I can’t help but think that would have been a better outcome.

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