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Ryan’s full response to Obama

By Ezra Klein,

JEWEL SAMAD AFP/GETTY IMAGES Obama thinks his budget is better than Ryan’s budget. Ryan disagrees. I made a mistake in Wonkbook this morning. I wrote that Paul Ryan “didn’t contest” the numbers in Obama’s budget speech. And that was true for the statement posted to Ryan’s Web site. But as his press secretary, Conor Sweeney, pointed out, the Ryan team did post a longer response on its Facebook page. Sweeney:

Not only did Ryan’s immediate statement make clear that what he heard ‘distorts the truth’ our shop (@PaulRyanPress) contested many of the charges as we heard them, once given a chance to review the text of the remarks and dig into the specifics, we broke down the President’s numerous breathtakingly false claims about our numbers. Ryan very clearly contested these false claims based on disingenuous assumptions and clear distortions.

I didn’t see the Facebook post. Mea culpa. But now I’ve read the response carefully, and I have to admit: I still don’t see where they contest any of Obama’s numbers. Let’s go through it in detail:

The President’s attacks began with an admission that his assumptions reflect White House spin, not our budget’s substance: “I want to go through what it would mean for our country if these cuts were to be spread out evenly.” Of course, the assumption that our budget makes these kinds of indiscriminate cuts is false. The House Budget Committee made dozens of specific assumptions to justify our numbers, and we made these assumptions public in the hundreds of pages of text we posted in plain view on the House Budget Committee’s website.

This is an argument over semantics, and both sides have a point. Ryan’s budget sets numbers for categories of spending (see the tables at the end of this document). So “Transportation” gets $787 billion over the next decade. “Income Security” gets $4.7 trillion. “Global War on Terrorism” gets $494 billion. But there’s no specificity within these categories. It doesn’t drill into those categories to say what, exactly, gets cut, and how much it gets cut by.

So how big of a cut does the Bureau of Land Management take? We don’t know. How big of a cut does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s weather forecasting services get? No clue. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Sorry. The “Concurrent Resolution on the Budget” offers some “Illustrative Policy Options” for each category, but nothing like a specific list of cuts to programs. Ryan -- arguably properly -- is leaving that for the relevant congressional committees to decide. In his speech, Obama anticipated this critique:

Now, you can anticipate Republicans may say, well, we’ll avoid some of these cuts -- since they don’t specify exactly the cuts that they would make. But they can only avoid some of these cuts if they cut even deeper in other areas. This is math. If they want to make smaller cuts to medical research that means they’ve got to cut even deeper in funding for things like teaching and law enforcement. The converse is true as well. If they want to protect early childhood education, it will mean further reducing things like financial aid for young people trying to afford college.

So Ryan is right: the cuts won’t be spread out evenly. But Obama is right, too; Ryan doesn’t say how they will be spread out. If the cuts aren’t spread evenly, then certain governmental functions will have to take much larger cuts than Obama is proposing in his speech. But it would be even more unfair for Obama to assume which functions those would be, and how large the cuts would end up being.

CLAIM: The Path to Prosperity would gut “the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last -- education and training; research and development.”

REALITY:

Education: The Obama administration’s policies have recklessly endangered the viability of the Pell program and helped fuel an unprecedented surge in tuition costs, which rose by over 8 percent last year. The Path to Prosperity aims to tackle the urgent problem of tuition inflation by encouraging innovation in higher education and making the Pell program sustainable. Contrary to the President’s false attacks, The Path to Prosperity maintains the maximum Pell award of $5,550.

The rest of this section is much like the bit I’ve quoted: Ryan attacks the president’s record, but he doesn’t debate the president’s numbers. Here’s what Ryan said about Pell grants in his initial budget release:

The administration’s budget pushes Pell Grant spending toward unsustainable rates, contributing to tuition inflation and inhibiting upward mobility and access to better opportunities.

There’s more programmatic detail on page 86 and 87 of this document. The bottom line is that the two sides agree: Ryan thinks Obama is spending too much on Pell grants, and Obama thinks Ryan is spending too little. This is, again, a debate over description, not about numbers. Onward!

CLAIM: The Path to Prosperity’s Medicaid reforms would “take away health care for about 19 million Americans -- 19 million.”

REALITY: 19 million is about the number of Americans forced into Medicaid by the President’s new health care law – so the President is just using a novel way of saying that we oppose his health care takeover and propose to repeal it.

Again, this is a debate about description. Ryan and Obama both agree that Ryan’s budget means 19 million Americans who would have gotten health coverage through Medicaid won’t get it.

CLAIM: “Who are these Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who, without Medicaid, won’t be able to afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s Syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the people who count on Medicaid.”

REALITY: If the President is talking about new Americans added to Medicaid as a result of the health care law, then these are not people who currently rely on Medicaid for their care. As for people who do currently rely on Medicaid, freeing states to focus aid on the truly needy individuals the President describes is the only way to ensure that these individuals are guaranteed affordable, quality care.

Again, not a debate about numbers.

CLAIM: “Instead of being enrolled in Medicare when they turn 65, seniors who retire a decade from now would get a voucher that equals the cost of the second cheapest health care plan in their area. If Medicare is more expensive than that private plan, they’ll have to pay more if they want to enroll in traditional Medicare.”
REALITY: The President appears to be either grossly misinformed or determined to mislead with regard to the House Republicans’ proposal to save and strengthen Medicare. All plans offered in the new Medicare exchange would be required to cover at least the actuarial value of the benefits offered by traditional Medicare, meaning that if the second-lowest-cost private plan is cheaper than traditional Medicare it is providing the same benefits in a more cost-effective way.

Again, not a debate about numbers. Indeed, nothing in Obama’s statement contradicts anything in Ryan’s description of his plan.

CLAIM: “If health care costs rise faster than the amount of the voucher -- as, by the way, they’ve been doing for decades -- that’s too bad.”

REALITY: That too is wrong. Under competitive bidding, there is no risk that any senior will be unable to afford his or her guaranteed Medicare benefits. There will always be one plan that is fully covered by the premium-support payment, and there will always be one plan that costs even less.

Ryan has a point here: His plan caps the growth of Medicare at GDP+0.5 percent. But it doesn’t spell out what happens if Medicare grows more quickly than that. All he says is “Congress would be required to intervene.” So he’s right that the extra cost doesn’t necessarily get passed onto seniors, as was true in the previous iteration of his plan. But it could be passed onto seniors. He’s left it vague. Some would argue the likeliest outcome is Congress does nothing at all, but if that’s true, then Ryan’s plan won’t meet it deficit-reduction targets.

CLAIM: “The net result is that our country will end up spending more on health care, and the only reason the government will save any money -- it won’t be on our books -- is because we’ve shifted it to seniors. They’ll bear more of the costs themselves. It’s a bad idea, and it will ultimately end Medicare as we know it.”

REALITY: The President’s health care law ended Medicare as we know it when it put the program’s future in the hands of 15 unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats and vested them with nearly unchecked power to cut Medicare spending in ways that will leave seniors with denied access to care. By contrast, our vision puts 50 million seniors in charge of their own health care decisions and lets the power of choice and competition work to improve quality and lower costs in health care.

Not an argument over numbers.

All in all, Ryan’s response is an energetic argument on behalf of his policies. But it’s not really an argument over where his budget does and doesn’t spend money. The closest he gets to actually arguing with the president’s numbers is saying that his cuts won’t be split evenly across categories -- they will be apportioned in some yet-to-be-determined fashion. And that’s true, but we can’t refrain from discussing the potential impact of a budget until after it’s been implemented. So in today’s Wonkbook, when I wrote:

Ryan didn’t contest any of it. He didn’t say his budget doesn’t focus its cuts on programs for the poor, or non-defense discretionary spending. His statement, which you can read in full here, lamented Obama’s “empty promises” and efforts to “divide Americans.” But it didn’t argue that the president got Ryan’s numbers wrong. And that’s because he didn’t: The numbers are there for everyone to see. The same goes for Obama’s budget, which Republicans have often blasted for raising taxes on the rich and doing too little on the deficit.

I was wrong. Ryan did contest the president’s speech. But the rest of that paragraph is basically right. The two parties have clear and contrasting fiscal visions: Ryan offers more deficit reduction, large tax cuts, and higher defense spending, and he pays for it through large cuts to programs for the poor and other government services. Obama offers somewhat less deficit reduction, somewhat lower defense spending, significantly higher taxes on the rich, and much less in cuts to programs for the poor and basic government services.

Ryan thinks his budget is better than Obama’s, and Obama thinks his budget is better than Ryan’s. But in terms of where the two budgets spend and cut, and who they tax, there’s no real disagreement here.

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