Up Front

Rep. Paul Ryan’s Budget Plan Falls Short, But Deserves Praise

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent budget plan has been met with fairly fierce criticism by many of my fellow Democrats and progressives. This is understandable at one level, as the plan clearly goes too far on some things. It would in fact be a poor final roadmap to future federal budget priorities. But it is a more serious and courageous effort than some allow–and useful for stoking debate while focusing national attention on the severity of our fiscal situation.

Ryan deserves credit because he does two things that most proponents of new budget plans fail to accomplish. First, he acknowledges where pain will result from his plan and does not try to camouflage it. Two, his numbers (more or less) add up. In a world made of just of mathematicians, or budget wonks, these two attributes might not be huge reasons for praise. But in this world, regardless of which side of the political aisle one examines, they have become rare, and therefore they merit some degree of praise.

I would go further. Ryan’s plan for Medicaid and Medicare–making the first largely about bloc grants to the states, the second about buying private insurance coverage for elderly citizens, with both government programs limited in how fast they can grow in the future–is one of the few understandable ways to rein in health care costs that I have ever seen proposed. He is not the first, to be sure. My colleague Alice Rivlin, in her deficit-reduction work last year with former Senator Pete Domenici, proposed a related idea (though the Rivlin-Domenici curbs on spending were not as severe, and were therefore more protective of the financial needs of the poor and elderly). But Ryan is among the first incumbent politicians to lay out such a plan in simple English in this country.

Ryan’s plan has flaws, of course. In terms of economic growth, it undervalues the kinds of investments in science, health research, education programs, infrastructure, and other key types of “domestic discretionary spending” that are needed to build a strong economy. In terms of fairness, its approach to income tax reform lets off higher-income Americans too easily. The wealthy should not be demonized in our national political debate, of course, but they should be asked to pay a somewhat higher share of taxes given how much economic trends of the last generation have improved their well being relative to the rest of the country.

In terms of foreign policy, my own field, Ryan would cut diplomacy too much while sparing the military too quickly. This is not a woolly-headed peacenik observation, but rather a recognition that after a decade at war, U.S. defense spending is quite high, and should be reassessed as overseas military operations hopefully begin to wind down in coming years. Most likely, modest additional cuts beyond those proposed already by Secretary of Defense Gates are viable, as part of a broader national deficit-reduction plan. Meanwhile, diplomacy and aid accounts suffered from decades of neglect until first George W. Bush and then Barack Obama began to rebuild them, so they should be pared more gently.

We need a broad national fiscal debate, and we ultimately will need a better national plan to get our deficit under control and our future economic fundamentals repaired. That will require attention to the third-rail issue of social security reform as well, another area where the Congressman from Wisconsin falls a bit short. But in my judgment, at least as a provocation and public-education device, Congressman Ryan’s proposal has moved the ball modestly ahead.