Eventually, the GOP Must Defend Its Budget

I am CR’ed and budgeted out, but it is hard to imagine writing about anything else in a week when the next showdown-that-could-lead-to-a-shutdown is coming to a head, when House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled his long-term budget vision/road map/blueprint, this time with an official imprimatur that his individual road map lacked, and when the Treasury Department laid out the dates for the debt limit to be reached (and the drop-dead date when extraordinary measures will no longer be available).

In many ways, the most interesting dynamic right now is that surrounding Speaker John Boehner, who has in the past been a first-rate legislator, knows how the legislative process works and knows the risks of a shutdown — to the economy and to his party — are high. The Ohio Republican knows that in the larger context, a deal that results in $33 billion cut from the current fiscal year’s budget is an immense political accomplishment. But he also knows it would be seen as abject surrender by a sizable slice of his caucus and would make it much harder to sell the next compromise, and the one after that, that will be necessary to get by in a political system where Democrats control the Senate and the White House.

It has no doubt crossed Boehner’s mind that he could simply set his sights on crafting an acceptable compromise and finding the votes to pass it, wherever he can find them. That might mean a winning coalition consisting of perhaps three-fifths of his Republicans and two-fifths of the Democrats. That would require Democrats agreeing to save Boehner’s bacon (something that Republicans in the 111th Congress would never, ever have done for then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi). But it would also require Boehner abandoning the sacred principle of his GOP predecessor as Speaker, Dennis Hastert (Ill.) — that policy is to be made by the majority of the majority, in turn enforcing strict party discipline and no input from the minority party.

No easy task, and not made easier by the fact that some of the GOP support for any compromise short of the full $61 billion is contingent on getting at least some of the controversial policy riders attached. The policy riders were part of the Boehner strategy to get broader support for the GOP spending plan, while underscoring his commitment to open up the House. But now, given that these kinds of riders are not a typical element of a continuing resolution, that many are simply non-starters, and that most have little to do with deficit reduction except in symbolic terms, they make the task of reaching a compromise more difficult.

Boehner is smart, tough and savvy — he did not achieve his party’s top leadership post in his second tour in the leadership team without extraordinary diligence and fortitude. I remain skeptical, given the obduracy of his freshmen and the leaders of the Republican Study Committee. They want a showdown, and a shutdown, to prove their bona fides. And a compromise on the Speaker’s part will have his Majority Leader showcasing himself as the tough guy.

What comes next? As I and many others have pointed out repeatedly, the “savings” in the CR are chump change when it comes to the long-term debt problem or the contemporary deficit, while being disruptive and even devastating when it comes to key policies. They will not be forgotten right away — there will be upheavals in some areas, from food safety to homeland security to health research to Pell grants, that many voters will see and feel. But they will quickly be supplanted in Washington by the soon-to-erupt appropriations for the coming fiscal year, with the pressure to make even more demanding cuts even greater, and the push from tea party activists to make the stand quickly by holding the debt ceiling hostage.

Then there is the continuing fandango over the larger debt issue. On the latter front, Ryan’s sweeping proposals on Medicaid and Medicare, amounting to privatization and voucherization for both programs, will be met with harsh criticism and a sizable dose of demagoguery from Democrats. But more important, they will be met with an intensive scrutiny that Ryan’s road map never received.

The steep and harsh Medicaid cuts come on top of a serious squeeze at the state level for the Medicaid program, and in the face of unprecedented demands for its services in a tough economy with high unemployment. Some commentators, such as Ezra Klein, have speculated that Ryan may get by with this one because the complainants will be largely poor people. But inevitably, many of the Medicaid changes will have an impact on the single largest component of the program — long-term care for the elderly — and may precipitate more unpleasant politics for Republicans.

The Medicare changes are more problematic, despite the endorsement of the voucher concept by Alice Rivlin, co-chairwoman of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s fiscal commission. Rivlin likes the fact that the Medicare change would implement a system of regulated health insurance exchanges — just like the ones in the Affordable Care Act that Ryan and his GOP colleagues condemned vigorously and nonstop. At some point, Ryan will have to explain why the Medicare exchanges are different (and presumably better). He will also have to explain why moving from a Medicare program, with astonishingly low administrative costs to a system run through those private insurers, will save money. Maybe he will also have to explain why his dramatic cuts would still violate the Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment.

Will Ryan’s intelligence, courage and willingness to take on big issues overcome those difficult questions and the tough analysis his proposals generate? Will the proposals provide any grounds for a larger bipartisan move to craft a grand debt reduction program? Or will all of it go by the wayside by having one or more government shutdowns and a potentially spectacular explosion over the debt ceiling? Interesting questions all for the weeks ahead.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.