October 9, 2013

IS THERE a way out of the political standoff that is paralyzing government and endangering the global economy? At the moment, it hardly seems so. But we see a glimmer of hope in suggestions from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

The government shutdown is into its second week, and a lot of folks are suffering. If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by next week, the federal government will find itself unable to pay all its bills, with potentially dire consequences.

President Obama says he will not negotiate with the Republicans in Congress until and unless they reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. It’s a matter of principle, he says: If they are rewarded for brinksmanship, they will hold the country hostage again and again. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) agrees, in an op-ed in The Post, that a matter of principle is at stake. Mr. Obama has been “continually thwarting the will of Congress,” Mr. Cantor writes. “This must end.”

With both sides claiming the moral high ground and defending constitutional prerogatives, compromise becomes increasingly difficult to envisage. On the other hand, the consequences of a failure to compromisedefault — are unacceptable. Stalemate could drive the country and the world back into recession. It could raise borrowing costs that would send the U.S. deficit soaring. It could irreversibly tarnish the U.S. dollar as the world’s most trusted currency.

The House Republicans, egged on by a couple of bomb-throwing senators, are responsible for the stalemate. Having essentially won the budget battle, when Democratic senators agreed to keep the government operating at GOP-preferred spending levels, they came up with additional demands that they knew could not be met: defunding, then delaying, the Affordable Care Act. As long as their strategy was nihilism, Mr. Obama was quite right to say that negotiation would be pointless.

Now Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a former vice presidential candidate, has offered a different approach, although he doesn’t explicitly label it that way. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Mr. Ryan proposes negotiations not over Obamacare but about “common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.”

This is what both sides should be talking about. Unreformed entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, will drive the country deeper and deeper into debt, as a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis showed; meanwhile, Congress and Mr. Obama have agreed to unsustainably deep cuts in all other spending, including defense, education, parks and many other programs. Mr. Ryan says some of those cuts could be undone in exchange for reforms to Medicare and Social Security, including some that Mr. Obama included in his budget. There should be common ground.

“This isn’t a grand bargain,” Mr. Ryan writes, sensibly. A commitment to make progress on these issues, accompanied by a reopening of the government and a temporary extension of the debt ceiling, could offer a way out.

The difficulty is knowing whether Mr. Ryan, or anyone, can speak for the Republican caucus in the House. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to rally his troops to accept some version of such a deal, and Mr. Obama should embrace it. Both men know that entitlement reform of the sort described by Mr. Ryan would be in the national interest.