The real Romney-Ryan budgets cuts aren’t to Medicare. They’re to programs for the poor.

August 22, 2012

I was pretty sure that when Paul Ryan got tapped to be Robin to Mitt Romney's Batman, it meant we were in for some serious budget talk. Which was great! I love budget talk.

Instead, it's actually meant we've spent a lot of time talking about Medicare. Which is odd. Because Paul Ryan’s budget isn’t that focused on Medicare. And that’s even truer for Mitt Romney’s budget, which really isn’t focused on Medicare, at least in the short term.

In the next decade, Paul Ryan’s most recent budget keeps the Medicare cuts that President Obama passed as part of the Affordable Care Act, and ... that’s pretty much it.

The voucher system you’ve heard about? That happens. But it doesn’t happen for 10 years. So, it doesn’t happen until after the hypothetical Romney-Ryan presidency has hypothetically ended its hypothetical second term. Hypothetically.

As a general rule in politics, if you’ve got two guys from the Republican Party running for president on a platform that says you can’t cut even a dollar from Medicare for current retirees, but they’re saying they’ll pass legislation that will completely remake Medicare in a really unpopular way for the generation of retirees that’ll come after they leave office, you may not want to assume that’s a total lock.

But here’s the thing. Ryan says his budget cuts more than $5 trillion in the next decade. Less than a trillion of that is coming from Medicare. Romney says his budget cuts about $7 trillion from the budget over the next decade and not a dollar of that comes from Medicare. And neither Romney nor Ryan want to cut Social Security and both increase spending on defense.

If you’re not cutting Medicare or Social Security or defense you’ve already taken more than half of the federal budget off the table. And you know what’s mainly left, the big pot of money you can still cut?

Programs for poor people.

And so, if you look at Ryan’s specific cuts, most of them are programs for poor people. In fact, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that more than six of every 10 dollars Ryan cuts from the federal budget is coming from programs for the poor.

Take Medicaid. Ryan cuts nearly $1.4 trillion from Medicaid over the next 10 years. That’s a 34 percent cut to the program’s expected spending over the next decade. Those cuts, unlike the cuts to Medicare, are specific, and they begin immediately. Estimates from the Urban Institute suggest that if those cuts are made, about 30 million people could lose their health insurance.

Oh, and Ryan repeals the Affordable Care Act. That’s where some of his Medicaid cuts come from, but that also knocks out all the subsidies for lower-income Americans to get health insurance. So that’s another 15 million people without health insurance. So under Ryan’s budget, about 45 million people would lose health insurance they otherwise would’ve gotten.

Ryan’s budget cuts $134 billion from food stamps, which is enough to kick 8-10 million people off the program.

Ryan cuts $166 billion from the portion of the budget that houses our education, training, employment and social services funding. We don’t know exactly how he’d apportion those cuts, but the documents he’s released suggest a big chunk of them are going to hit Pell grants.

Moreover, everything we know suggests Romney’s on the same page as his running mate.

It’s important to remember that Romney’s budget is much, much more aggressive than Ryan’s. It’s less specific, so it gets less attention. But it’s much more aggressive. Ryan’s got about $5.3 trillion in cuts. Romney’s looking for $7 trillion. And he’s not keeping Ryan and Obama’s Medicare savings. And he’s increasing spending on defense by much more than Ryan does. So to pay for that defense spending and make up the Medicare cuts, he needs about $1.5 trillion more in cuts from the non-Medicare, non-defense side of the budget than Ryan has.

To make Romney’s numbers add up, you have to assume that by the end of his presidency, Romney will have cut every federal program that’s not Medicare, Social Security or defense spending by 57 percent.

I don’t assume he’s going to do that. I assume Mitt Romney’s budget is a fantasy and it’s never going to happen.

When Romney does talk spending cuts, he tends to focus on things like repealing Obamacare, privatizing Amtrak, cutting arts funding and ending subsidies for Planned Parenthood. Whatever you think of those programs, repealing Obamacare increases the deficit and the others are rounding errors.

But when Romney gets kind of serious, the big categories he identifies for cuts — and I’m quoting from his speech in Detroit here — are Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies and job training. Programs for the poor, in other words.

And the reason he needs to focus on these programs is because he's taken Medicare, Social Security, defense and taxes off the table for the next decade.

We're not talking about the budgets like this because both campaigns think it's in their interest to turn the conversation to Medicare. After all, seniors vote. And they particularly vote in Florida. And so the Obama campaign has decided to focus on the Ryan and Romney's long-term plan to voucherize Medicare, and the Romney campaign has decided to focus on the Affordable Care Act's cuts to Medicare. There's not much  electoral upside in making a big issue out of cuts to programs for the poor.

Nevertheless, that’s the reality of the Ryan/Romney budgets during a Romney-Ryan presidency. They wouldn't do much to Medicare. Rather, they'd cut deep into Medicaid and other programs for the poor. That’s their budget. That’s what their numbers say. That should be the conversation we’re having.

Note: If you'd prefer to see this same argument made in exciting video form, here you go:

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Brad Plumer | August 22, 2012