Paul Ryan says he doesn't spend much time worrying about Republicans being blamed for sequester pain. The bruises, in his view, go with the territory. "We have to get right in our minds that the bully pulpit will always probably get better press than we will," the House Budget Committee chairman and the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee told me recently. "That cannot deter us."
To listen to Ryan is to understand that the country should brace for a months-long slog, from sequester to continuing resolution to, yes, another debt-ceiling showdown sometime this summer.
Really? The debt ceiling, again? I thought Republicans were determined to avoid replaying that losing hand. "Not this time," Ryan said. "The debt problem is getting worse. We're not leaving this session of Congress until we have a down payment on the problem." That stance might not be so worrisome were it not for the insistence of Ryan and fellow Republicans that the down payment be composed entirely of spending cuts.
That's no surprise, but one insight that emerges from talking to Ryan is the degree to which his zeal for tax reform drives the refusal to consider new revenue. The general Republican allergy to taxes and the party's specific unwillingness to swallow another increase, on top of the rate rise agreed to as part of the fiscal-cliff deal, is part of what drives the current no-new-taxes attitude, but only part. There is some method to this anti-tax madness.In making the cliff deal, White House officials had bet that dangling the lure of tax reform before Republicans would lead them to cough up hundreds of billions more in additional revenue. In fact, as Ryan explains it, exactly the opposite may be true. The extra revenue provided by the cliff deal supplied the cushion needed to accomplish tax reform — a higher base from which to start trimming loopholes and lowering rates. At the same time, however, only so much pruning is politically palatable. So closing enough loopholes to produce additional revenue — on top of what is needed to pay for the rate-trimming — is difficult. "Been there, done that," Ryan says of new tax revenue.
Ryan's legitimate points
I disagree, vehemently, with Ryan's assessment of the proper mix of tax revenue and spending cuts to deal with the debt. Much more than the $700 billion or so raised in the fiscal cliff deal is needed to get the debt under control without imposing damaging cuts. But I think he makes two legitimate, interconnected points. First, where's the president's budget? "I've never seen such staggering disrespect for the budgeting process," Ryan said. The budget was due, by law, the first Monday in February; now, it probably won't be out until sometime in March.
The White House says the delay is due to fiscal-cliff wrangling and the cumbersome process of updating discretionary spending numbers once the deal was struck. But the document ought to have been out by now.
Second, how does the president propose to rein in entitlement spending? The White House points to its offer from the last negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner and says that remains on the table. It cites earlier budget proposals on Medicare and put it all together in a blog post that confirmed its willingness to change the formula for calculating Social Security cost-of-living increases. But, really, a blog post? What about a plan that the president himself explains, and sells, to the country? "He never gives the public an honest account of what he's willing to do on entitlements," Ryan said of the president. "Trimming a statistic," he sniffed of the proposed Social Security tweak, "is not entitlement reform."
At this point in a Mitt Romney administration, Ryan imagined, he would be maneuvering to pass the grand debt-reduction plan. "Mitt and I were going to bring to Congress a plan to fix this this year and we were going to launch a charm offensive with Senate Democrats to work with them to do it," Ryan said. So much for charm offensive. This is going to be trench warfare.