“Absolutely,” the House Budget Committee chairman replied without hesitation. “I’m confident.”
Makes perfect sense, in a way. Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, is on record as saying, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” And Ryan has just written a budget that supports Romney’s boast.
Ryan would cut $770 billion over 10 years from Medicaid and other health programs for the poor, compared with President Obama’s budget. He takes an additional $205 billion from Medicare, $1.6 trillion from the Obama health-care legislation and $1.9 trillion from a category simply labeled “other mandatory.” Pressed to explain this magic asterisk, Ryan allowed that the bulk of those “other mandatory” cuts come from food stamps, welfare, federal employee pensions and support for farmers.
Taken together, Ryan would cut spending on such programs by $5.3 trillion, much of which currently goes to the have-nots. He would then give that money to America’s haves: some $4.3 trillion in tax cuts, compared with current policies, according to Citizens for Tax Justice.
Ryan’s justification was straight out of Dickens. He wants to improve the moral fiber of the poor. There is, he told the audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute later Tuesday, an “insidious moral tipping point, and I think the president is accelerating this.” Too many Americans, he said, are receiving more from the government than they pay in taxes.
After recalling his family’s immigration from Ireland generations ago, and his belief in the virtue of people who “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” Ryan warned that a generous safety net “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.”
How very kind: To protect poor Americans from being demeaned, Ryan is cutting their anti-poverty programs and using the proceeds to give the wealthiest Americans a six-figure tax cut.
Ryan’s budget outline omits specifics about how much he would take from programs. Instead, it provided a string of Orwellian euphemisms. The budget “repairs the safety net” by allowing the states to award public assistance to fewer people — “those who need it most.” Financial aid for college would be slashed — er, “put on a sustainable funding path.” And the Ryan plan would give workers “the tools to thrive in the 21st century” — by killing off various job-training programs.
Ryan would cut Medicaid by a third and ship the remnants to state governments to handle. Or, as the congressman described it: “We also propose to strengthen Medicaid by empowering our states.”
When Ryan released his first budget after becoming committee chairman last year, much of the attention focused on his plans to turn Medicare into a private insurance program. He hasn’t backed away from that, but now he’s making a bolder assault on a full range of social programs.
The shame of this is Ryan once again missed an opportunity to bring some responsible behavior to the capital’s perennial budget fights. He pointed out, correctly, that Senate Democrats have failed for years to produce a budget. He accurately observed that Obama’s budget does little to resolve the debt crisis. And he is right that Medicare and other social programs will collapse if nothing is done to change their revenue-payment structure.
But instead of using the savings from social programs to pay off what he calls a “mountain of debt,” Ryan dishes out tax cuts; the federal debt would continue to grow, by $4 trillion, over his 10-year plan, and the federal budget would remain in deficit.
Such a coupling — tax cuts that disproportionately help the rich and spending cuts that overwhelmingly hurt the poor — makes Ryan’s budget a political loser. His patronizing justification — that he is cutting support for the poor and the old in order to help them — adds insult. “If we have a debt crisis, then the people who get hurt the first and the worst are the poor and the elderly,” he reasoned.
And Ryan thinks the eventual Republican presidential nominee will campaign on this plan? “I’ve spoken to all these guys,” Ryan assured reporters, “and they believe that we are heading in the right direction.”
This explains a lot about the Republicans’ difficulty.