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Paul Ryan, budget slasher or big talker?

Rep. Ryan continues a GOP tradition of never producing a balanced budget.

April 12, 2011|Michael Kinsley

The fiscal savior of this country will be the person who convinces us to bite the bullet. That person will not be Rep. Paul Ryan.

The House Budget Committee chairman's thoughts for 2012, released last week, purport to be something that's been missing since Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address in 1981. For 30 years, Republicans have demanded a balanced budget without ever producing one, even on paper. Ryan continues the GOP tradition of evasion. How has Ryan built his reputation as a hero of fiscal discipline? Here are some of the techniques. Watch closely.

Say you've done it. They'll

probably believe you.

If you boiled the self-congratulation out of Ryan's 60-page document, you'd save a lot of paper.

Waste, fraud and abuse.

These are old friends — introduced to us by Reagan himself. There is no budget line called "waste, fraud and abuse." No doubt there is plenty of all three in the federal government (just as in the private sector). But Ryan offers no reason to think that there are easy pickings that the five presidents starting with Reagan, most of them Republican, have overlooked.

Caps.

Ryan says there should be a "binding cap on total spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product," along with other caps on smaller pieces of the budget. An order to cut, without any guidance on what to cut or why, is more like an aspiration than a decision. You might as well pass a law saying, "There shall be a balanced budget," and then claim that you've solved the puzzle. A cap is a restatement of the problem. It's not a solution.

Block grants.

Ryan wants to turn the federal money that finances Medicaid into block grants to the states. Ryan does not say how he thinks the states might run the program more efficiently. He merely asserts that they would. Does he read the newspapers? The only advantage of a block grant is that Congress can cut it without having to explicitly reduce benefits. Ryan is at his most absurd in suggesting that the problem is the "onerous, one-size-fits-all" federal approach to medical care, as if there were dramatic differences in the physiology of people in Nebraska and New Jersey.

Cuts he claims are good for

you don't count.

Ryan wants to "ensure that America's safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency." Maybe Ryan is right that we are too good to the poor and unemployed. But isn't there something Orwellian about labeling cuts in these programs "Strengthening the Social Safety Net"?

Freezes and attrition.

One group of people Ryan makes no bones about gunning for is federal employees (or "bureaucrats"). Even here, though, he avoids the tough decisions and hides how much he's really asking. He wants to lower spending on "non-security government bureaucracies" to "below 2008 levels" and then freeze it for five years. In addition, he wants to reduce the federal workforce by 10% by attrition during the next three years. And, for good measure, he wants to cut government workers' benefits.

A five-year freeze would amount to a pay cut of more than 15% (based on the loss of raises keyed to inflation), and the reversion to 2008 and the cut in benefits would bring the proposed pay cut up over 20%. Maybe federal workers deserve no better, and maybe all the shirkers and incompetents will leave while the good ones will stay. But that's not how attrition tends to work.

Grandfathering.

Ryan's solution for Medicare is to replace the current system with more block grants — this time to individuals rather than states. He insists that, even while saving money, his revised Medicare will be vastly superior to the current model. And yet he repeatedly emphasizes that those over 55 may stick with current arrangements if they prefer. People under 55 would have no option but the new system. It's like the Berlin Wall, with guards on only one side, keeping people in. Chances are, that's not the side you want to be on.

Punt.

And what about the infamous "third rail" — Social Security? On this, even the pretense of courage deserts our hero. Ryan wants to "force policymakers to come to the table and enact common-sense reforms. He wants to require by law that "congressional leaders … put forward their best ideas as well." (Can't you just see John Boehner being hauled off to prison for secretly hoarding his best ideas for reforming Social Security?) There's lots more in this vein. Bottom line: He's not going to touch it.

Not all of Ryan's ideas are terrible. But our problem is not a lack of ideas. It's a lack of resolve. About this, Ryan has nothing to say.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, writes a column for Politico. A version of this column also appears on that website.

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