Less is more? Less specificity, that is, for Ryan.

March 12, 2013
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

If there’s one theme to this year’s version of Paul Ryan’s House Republican Budget, it’s less: less specificity, that is.

In some ways, that’s good. Last year, Ryan said that tax reform would produce tax rates of exactly 10 percent and 25 percent. That’s not how to do tax reform, and this year those exact numbers are still there, but now they’re goals that will be achieved if possible. Good: The way to do revenue-neutral tax reform is to chop away as many tax exclusions as possible, and then set income tax rates lower in order to take advantage of those savings. Picking an arbitrary tax rate first doesn’t make any sense.

In other ways, however, losing details appears to be just a way of avoiding criticism. For example, last year’s Ryan budget projected out to 2050. This year? There seems to be some projection, because the graph on page 7 appears to go all the way out to 2060, but there’s not a single mention in the budget of anything beyond the 10-year budget window, which only takes the budget through 2023.

Why? Last year’s budget had a much-criticized problem with it’s long-term projections. Ryan cut discretionary spending by so much that if defense stayed even at the low range of historic norms, there would have been nothing at all left for the rest of government year-to-year spending. In fact, it would have required negative non-defense discretionary spending. How to avoid the critics? Don’t rework the budget so the numbers are more realistic (even the most libertarian of Republicans don’t really want to entirely shut down every agency outside of defense, Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlements). Just don’t include the numbers!

As it is, the number for this category is almost certainly unrealistically low, especially given that the discussion in Ryan’s document is about waste, rather than being about finding major current government functions to eliminate — which is what it would take to get cuts of that magnitude.

Everyone who has followed public opinion on the budget knows that both balancing the budget and abstract spending cuts poll very well, while specific spending cuts poll very badly. Tax “reform” polls well; specific changes to the tax code are a lot harder sell.

The truth, especially in budgets, is in the details. But Paul Ryan just didn’t give us enough of that.

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Jonathan Capehart | March 12, 2013