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Ideological Fervor, U.S. Budget Blues

Nothing constructive has or will emerge from the protracted battle over federal government funding the remaining months of the current fiscal year. The amount of reduced spending in contention is trivial from the perspective of deficit reduction but troublesome in terms of its impact on the economic recovery in the short term and on prospects for reaching an agreement on the FY 2012 budget and beyond. The likely government shutdown is being forced by strong opposition from ideological purists within House Republican ranks to any compromise of the budget cuts and policy riders included in the continuing resolution they passed in February but which failed to garner a majority in the Senate. By most accounts, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) opposes a government shutdown and would happily bank the budget cuts agreed to by President Obama and Democratic leaders (which actually exceed his own target before being forced by tea party members and activists to up the ante). Ironically, it is the speaker’s weakness within his own party, and his anticipation of a challenge from within his own leadership team, that puts us on a seemingly inexorable march to a government shutdown. This is political dysfunction at its worst.

Actually, it can get worse and it already has.  Many analysts were encouraged by a host of comprehensive deficit reduction plans – including Bowles-Simpson and Rivlin-Domenici – and bipartisan stirrings in the Senate to take them seriously.  Unfortunately, House Republican Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s “The Path to Prosperity” has snapped them back to reality.  The Ryan budget plan for FY 2012 and beyond has been praised by New York Times columnist David Brooks as “the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes,” one that “will immediately reframe the domestic policy debate.”  I wish it were so.  Ryan has not “grasped reality with both hands.”  He has advanced a radical, ideologically-driven plan to reduce the size of government and lower taxes that is more likely to intensify the polarization of the parties than to assuage it.  A few years ago, a similar Ryan blueprint attracted barely a handful of Republican supporters.  Today it is championed by most if not all, a commentary on the rightward shift of the party since 2008.  But it is hard to imagine any moderate Democrat in Congress taking it as a basis for serious negotiations on the budget.  Initial reactions from budget centrists have been overwhelmingly negative.  The Ryan proposal most certainly is not a comprehensive deficit reduction plan.  It cuts taxes (mainly to the benefit of high-income households) rather than raise needed revenues.  It directs most of its budget cuts at programs for low-income individuals and families.  It shifts risks to and imposes greater costs for health care on individuals, many of whom will not have the resources to absorb them.  It assumes cost savings and job growth without providing any means for achieving them.

Government shutdowns and radical budget plans are not recipes for responsible policymaking.  Perhaps they will be more productive in framing choices for the 2012 election.