Paul Ryan doesn’t like to talk about his actual budget cuts

March 15, 2013

"This has been a really big week," said Rep. Paul Ryan to an adoring crowd at CPAC. "We got white smoke from the Vatican and a budget from the Senate!"

You see what's coming next, right?

"But when you read it, you find the Vatican is not the only place blowing smoke this week!"

There it is.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Mary Altaffer/AP

Ryan's CPAC speech was strongly delivered and well received. The House Budget Chairman, always a fairly good speaker, got much better over the course of the presidential campaign. But content-wise, there was little new. Most of it was cribbed from the introduction to his new budget. If you've read that, you've heard this.

One neat rhetorical turn he made during the speech, though, deserves a bit more scrutiny. "We don't see the debt as an opportunity to cut with abandon and shirk our obligations," he said. "We see it as an opportunity to reform government, to make it more effective."

Ryan talks often of "tough choices" -- how House Republicans are making them, and Senate Democrats are dodging them. But when you listen to his speeches, or read his budget documents, none of the choices actually seem that tough. He doesn't say that his $5 trillion-plus in cuts will end important services and kick millions on Americans off Medicaid, but that these difficult decisions are necessary to fix America's finances. That would be a "tough choice." But if massive cuts are just "an opportunity to reform government, to make it more effective," that doesn't sound so tough.

Part of this comes because a substantial portion of Ryan's savings come from repealing Obamacare's coverage provisions. That means 20 or 30 million people who would otherwise have health insurance over the next decade won't. But since Obamacare hasn't actually begun delivering that health insurance yet, the cut can remain comfortingly theoretical -- it's hard to miss insurance you don't actually have.

But that's not true for all of Ryan's savings. He cuts Medicaid by more than $700 billion. That will mean millions of people lose health-care coverage. But you wouldn't know it from reading his budget. "One way to secure the Medicaid benefit is by converting the federal share of Medicaid spending into an allotment tailored to meet each state’s needs, indexed for inflation and population growth," he writes. Phrased like that, it sounds like he's adding to the Medicaid budget!

His section on tax reform is similar. "By making the tax code more conducive to innovation, investment, and sustained job creation, we can safeguard the American Dream for generations to come,: Ryan enthuses. His goals require $5.7 trillion in cuts to deductions, exclusions, and other features of the tax code. That will cause a lot of pain. But you'd never know it.

"A budget is more than just a list of numbers," Ryan said. "It's an expression of our governing philosophy." Thankfully, it's also a list of numbers. Because while Ryan's budget is all about cuts, his philosophy, at least as he explains it in public, is all about improvements. The government that emerges in his speeches sounds like it does more and does it much better. The government that emerges in his lists of numbers does much less, and real people suffer as a consequence.

Ryan's budget makes a series of extraordinarily tough choices. But he doesn't like to talk about them.

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Brad Plumer · March 15, 2013