Judging the Ryan Plan

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, was in this space yesterday elaborating on his negative take on the latest Ryan budget. His first shot: It takes too long to bring the budget to balance. But that’s a function of the CBO’s pessimistic assumptions of economic growth. Before concluding that other plans put forward by conservatives are better because they reach balance faster, make sure they’re being evaluated on the same assumptions.

His second shot: The Ryan budget “breaks [the] promise” Republicans made in the debt-ceiling deal by providing more “spending authority” than the deal allowed for. Last year, you may recall, conservative critics of the spring budget deal said that actual outlays matter more than “budget authority.” They were right then. And when it comes to actual outlays, the Ryan budget comes in under the debt-ceiling deal’s levels. (Which, incidentally, is why Democrats are claiming, equally baselessly, that it breaks the deal.)

The budget makes structural changes to the budget that reduce spending over the long term, with the savings accumulating. But it also makes up-front cuts. Total federal spending under the budget would be $97 billion lower in the next fiscal year than in this one—an achievement that may be small in the context of the challenge before us but is quite large in the context of past budgets.

Which brings us to what I take to be the crux of the intra-conservative debate. In a tweet, David Limbaugh asked me whether I think the Ryan plan cuts enough, or is too little too late. I take it from the phrasing that he’s not asking whether I would ideally prefer more spending cuts — the answer is yes — but whether the spending cuts are enough to avert a crisis. That answer is also yes. There are several things I’d like to change about the plan, but if a Congress and White House committed to this budget path, it would mean that we will not have a future of ever-rising debt and ever-rising taxes. That doesn’t mean conservatives shouldn’t suggest improvements and make criticisms — I’ve done both — but it does mean, I think, that they should do those things while being generally supportive.

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