The “Young Guns” — Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy — paid National Review a visit today, and they give every sign of being serious about the deficit: no nonsense about relying on cutting earmarks, waste, or redundancy to get the deficit down and the budget under control. I put the two questions to them that normally trip up alleged budget hawks: Entitlement reform? Yes, absolutely, they are serious about entitlement reform. Take a look at defense spending? Yes, everything is on the table.
Ryan, who has been one of the few sane voices on the debt for some time now, says he expects the new crop of Republicans expected to be sworn in come January to be a rowdy bunch, with little respect for the seniority system or traditional congressional politics. Cantor, too, made it clear that he knows they are in for a long-term fight — no magic-bullet solutions were under consideration. McCarthy was the surprise for me, though — I did not know much about him and was impressed by his command of the data, relating both to politics and policy.
I have been, and remain, skeptical of congressional Republicans’ ability to head off Fiscal Armageddon; the political incentives are all wrong, and it probably will take a major economic crisis to realign those incentives. But I am a little less skeptical today than I was yesterday — maybe 5 percent less. I think there is a non-trivial chance that non-entitlement spending could be scaled back to 2008 levels — not exactly raging austerity, but a start; combined with sane entitlement reform and tax reform, that could get us several steps back from the ledge we’re on. Something good seems to be afoot among Republicans.
Here’s what to worry about: Chances are, the economy is still going to stink in January 2011. It may be worse then than it is today — and it is possible that it will be significantly worse. Ryan is worried about the dollar, and he is right to be. If things get really hideous economically, then there is going to be tremendous political pressure on the GOP to do the dumb thing that Republicans always do: cut the taxes and let the spending grow. That could happen. We can’t let it.
And young guns eventually become old bulls — restoring fiscal sanity in our country is going to be a decade(s?)-long project, and one fresh class of hotheaded congressmen, welcome as it would be, is not going to do it alone.