House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) has proposed a budget under which Congress would cut federal spending. Let us repeat that: U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan has proposed a budget under which Congress would cut federal spending — not the rate of growth in federal spending, not future federal spending at some distant date, not federal spending vs. an imaginary baseline, but actual federal spending. The $1.087 trillion in discretionary spending under the current continuing resolution would be replaced by $1.055 trillion in the new budget, an actual, honest-to-God reduction in federal outlays of $32 billion.
Conservative budget hawks, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Kent.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) prominent among them, have argued that this cut is insufficient. It is. Further spending cuts will have to be made and our broken entitlement programs will have to be made rational. But let’s not underestimate the magnitude of the political challenge that task involves. A five- or ten-year effort that continually reduces federal spending is vastly preferable to an attempt to achieve everything in a single shot that misses.
Senator Paul, to his credit, argues that Republicans should enact a full $500 billion in spending cuts this year. He should look to his left, look to his right, and do the arithmetic: Republicans remain in the minority in the Senate, Barack Obama remains in the White House, and a piecemeal approach to spending reform therefore has a greater chance of contributing to real success than do more radical approaches. Representative Ryan’s proposal already is $74 billion less than the president’s budget request; Republicans will have a hard enough time making those cuts, much less Senator Paul’s.
If the Paul Ryan budget is enacted, Republicans will have a real accomplishment off the bat: They will have drawn first blood in the battle against federal fiscal incontinence. They will have actually reduced discretionary spending and taken the first steps on the road toward national fiscal recovery, and they will have done so without compromising core federal responsibilities (national-defense spending will in fact see a small increase, reflecting the reality that we still are fighting two wars). Which is to say, Republicans will have gone a long way toward reestablishing their credibility as the party of fiscal responsibility, something it is absolutely necessary for them to do before the next stage of this campaign: the very difficult process of reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, along with making the additional discretionary-spending cuts needed to bring the budget into sustainable balance.
One of the reasons that Democrats suffered their ignominious shellacking at the polls last November is that they tried to do too much too quickly. The legislative fights were polarizing, the lack of debate appalling, the parliamentary thuggery off-putting. Republicans should be careful not to mimic their performance. Their goals should be ambitious, their means gradual. Senator Paul and Representative Flake are right to hold Republicans’ legislative feet to the flame, and we trust that they will continue to do so. We also trust that they will back the Ryan budget as the most efficacious realistic avenue toward reform.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its original posting.