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Writing the plan is the easy part

at 08:50 AM ET, 06/01/2011

Jon Huntsman, in full campaign mode, declares that people who disagree with Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan “incur a moral responsibility to propose reforms that would ensure Medicare’s ability to meet its responsibilities to retirees without imposing an unaffordable tax burden on future generations of Americans.” This is by far the strangest defense of Ryan’s plan: that its critics are full of it because they don’t have a better alternative. For one thing, it’s fallacious reasoning. Whether or not Ryan’s plan is a good idea has nothing to do with the merits of whatever other possible plan its critics could come up with. Congress doesn’t vote on a ballot of possible budget plans. Each one comes up for a yes-or-no vote. If members of Congress disagree with a plan, they should vote against it, regardless of whether they have a better idea. That’s how up or down votes work.

For another thing, there are plenty of other plans. There’s Domenici-Rivlin, and Bowles-Simpson, the People’s Budget from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s plan, and the six plans the Peterson Foundation got various think tanks — from the Economic Policy Institute to the Bipartisan Policy Center to the Heritage Foundation — to think up. You can go even make your own debt plan; The New York Times and Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget have handy widgets to help you. Putting together a plan is the easy part; it’s just arithmetic. It’s putting together one that can get passed — and getting all players with a veto to agree to it — that’s difficult.

Huntsman’s proviso that any plan must avoid “imposing an unaffordable tax burden” may look like it gives him an out here, as many of the above plans, such as the People’s Budget, rely heavily on upper-class tax hikes. But it’s not clear Ryan’s plan is much better for most taxpayers. The plan works mostly through draconian cuts, yes, but it also mandates the elimination of a number of tax expenditures so as to finance rate cuts for high-income individuals. The plan is vague about which exact expenditures would be cut, but if, say, the mortgage interest deduction were curtailed and the new revenue used to pay for high-earner tax cuts, the overall effect would likely be a higher tax burden for middle-class taxpayers. Indeed, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that the “roadmap” Ryan unveiled last year — which bears a strong resemblance to the budget he released this year — would increase middle-class taxes. Huntsman has every right to prefer this way of doing things, but commending Ryan just for releasing a plan, any plan, is silly.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at the Washington Post.

 
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