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Paul Ryan does not have an easy job

By Ezra Klein,

J. Scott Applewhite Associated Press House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., gives the GOP response to President Obama's budget submission for Fiscal Year 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 14, 2011. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) The Concord Coalition has an excellent brief laying out how difficult it will be for Paul Ryan to simultaneously uphold his party’s prohibition against any and all tax increases and produce a budget with more concrete deficit reduction than what’s in the administration’s proposal. “The dilemma is plain,” the brief says. “A budget that uses honest numbers and reflects Republicans’ current policy preferences will result in large continuing deficits with growing debt and growing interest costs. On the other hand, a budget that shows greater progress on reducing the deficit will, of necessity, require an openness to changes that Republicans have been reluctant to put in play such as defense cuts, revenue increases and entitlement reforms that could affect current beneficiaries.”

But the answer to that dilemma is also plain, as the Concord Coalition acknowledges. The president’s budget has to be specific. Ryan’s can be vague:

Unlike the President’s Budget — which lists policy proposals and numerical targets for revenues, deficits and spending — the congressional budget resolution only requires numerical targets, and normally does not go into the specific policy proposals to achieve them. This will allow a degree of vagueness that will make it easier to tout bottom-line numbers without necessarily having to fight over every small proposal to achieve them.

What are his other options? If he can’t allow taxes to increase, that adds $5.6 trillion to the deficit over and above CBO’s current projections, as they assume the Bush tax cuts and a variety of other cuts will expire. If he's using the CBO’s economic projections, those are quite pessimistic and do not allow us to assume we’ll just grow our way out of the hole. If his deficit reduction doesn’t kick in for decades, as is true in his Roadmap, then his budget will look worse than the administration’s and his reputation as a fiscal hawk will be trashed. But if he tries to sharply cut spending popular among the middle class or seniors, he may lose his party the next election.

It’s not an easy set of choices. But it’s clear that the easiest answer is to simply pick some improbably low target for spending and not say how we’ll make the cuts and choices necessary to get there. Which is, of course, no answer at all.

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