I spoke with House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) this morning by phone. I began by asking about the Senate Democrats’ budget. He laughed, “It’s very clear they haven’t been able to produce a budget for four years.” He noted, “The only real cuts are to hit [health care] providers. You know that’s not going to happen, not going to work.” Indeed, periodic “doc fix” legislation backfills what these kinds of cuts take out. He noted, “It’s about a trillion in tax cuts and it increases spending. … It’s just tax and spend liberalism.”
Ryan confirmed that at the president’s meeting on the Hill yesterday, he told Republicans his own budget, which will come two months late, won’t be much different than the Senate effort. Ryan is not surprised. “Par for the course, ” is how he describes President Obama’s effort. He begins by offering that Obama isn’t taking on his own side. (“Leaders lead.”) But is it possible the president simply doesn’t think budget reform is a priority? Ryan responded, “It’s either a fundamental lack of leadership and deferring to others or a world view that is divorced from reality.” He nevertheless is pleased the president came to the Hill. “Whether it is poll directed or political opportunism or insincerity, you have to start this way,” he said of a public show of goodwill.
The parties are so far apart that you have to wonder if we will operate on continuing resolutions for the remainder of the president’s term. Ryan says matter-of-factly, “Time will tell.” He plainly doesn’t think that is the best route, “We are the power of the purse. We need to change. We need to adapt.” But when the two sides are so far apart, one senses that we are simply heading for another election in which both sides try to break the logjam by getting a full sweep from the voters. Ryan thinks that is possible this time, “I gotta think a moderate from a red state up in 2014 looks at this and gets a big headache.” Until now Senate Democrats have lived a charmed life with no need to make budget choices. Ryan said, “[Sen. Patty Murray's] conference has [been] lulled into a sense of security.”
Despite all that, Ryan seems willing to try one more time. “The reason I decided to get a waiver to stay on as budget chairman [is] because I want to give one more try at the budget process.” Ryan didn’t speed up implementation of his premium support plan for both practical and political reasons. Because the current Obamacare formula already limits the increase in Medicare, implementation of his Medicare reform within the 10-year budget window wouldn’t have any budget savings. But moreover, there seem to be limits to the nerve of Republicans. Ryan put it delicately: “Based on language used to constituents in the past, we wanted to keep it consistent.”
At CPAC, he told me, he will speak on Friday mostly about the budget, using that as his forum to explain his budget and sketch out the GOP vision. But Ryan has never been only about budget numbers. Not unlike the president, he said the budget “is a means to an end.” In addition to talking about economic revival he will talk about “reviving civil society. … In our communities we can’t allow [churches, charities, etc.] to languish or government to crowd them out.”
Unlike the budget, Ryan is optimistic about immigration reform. “I’ve always been for immigration reform. ” In contrast to certain Senate Republicans, Ryan doesn’t think this can be rushed. He says currently there is a “very good painstaking progress.”
It struck me, talking to Ryan and later to another GOP member of the House, that as important as it may be there is little hope for a grand bargain or a budget. Republicans aren’t going to give the president more in revenue; they’ve given already to the tune of $600 billion. The president, even if one believes he wants fundamental entitlement reform (although he refuses to put such ideas in his budget), demands huge taxes to lull Senate and House Dems into supporting those reforms. The is no way to square the circle, and it is not clear that meeting halfway is a good idea.
The two sides agree on revenue neutral corporate tax reform and on means testing Medicare, but neither side wants to do just those items. Republicans don’t want to deliver a cut for corporations and leave the individual code as a burden on individuals and small business while the president can’t get a deal that does serve up red meat in his ongoing class warfare. The Republicans should try, of course, and maybe some progress can be made in a Senate-House conference. But if not, why not turn to items that can deliver what voters need and want?
A pro-energy bill; a GOP alternative to Obamacare; an audit of the Education Department and substitution of vouchers for a useless bureaucracy; and immigration reform are areas in which something positive can be achieved. So after the two sides knock each other senseless on the budget and taxes, perhaps then Washington can get something done. And if energy legislation unlocks more revenue, middle-class families get access to the schools of their choice and the underground economy gets driven into the legitimate, tax-paying economy, maybe the budget problems will get easier.