By Paolo von Schirach
March 21, 2012
WASHINGTON – House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is a courageous man. He came forth with a Republican budget proposal that would actually do something substantive about entitlement and tax reform. He already did this with his 2011 “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal. But that got nowhere because the Democrats in Congress and the White House managed to successfully misrepresent needed spending reforms as mean spirited anti-seniors and anti-poor proposals meant to hurt the weak, while the mean spirited Republicans push for more tax cuts for their wealthy supporters.
“Path to Prosperity”
So, we did not even get started on the “Path to Prosperity”. The following acrimonious debate on raising the debt ceiling proved that it would be politically impossible to have a decent agreement on any sensible mix of welfare reforms and some tax increases. The ”Super Committee” that was tasked to find some compromise on further spending cuts got stuck on the same issues and did not produce anything at all in the fall of 2011. This way all was postponed until January 2013, conveniently after the November 2012 elections.
A campaign is a bad time to propose spending cuts
And now we are in the middle of a campaign, a supremely bad time for anybody to come forth with bold plans that would include entitlement cuts. Even if the cuts envisaged are for later, and even if they will not affect the current beneficiaries, any talk about seriously cutting Washington-delivered goodies is political suicide for anybody seeking election.
Tea Party people just as unserious
And, yes, this applies to those seeking the votes of the die hard, anti-spending Tea Party people. Fact is that the Tea Party people want spending cuts –but only in principle. Indeed, when you ask them what would they cut, they become very uncomfortable and they usually retreat behind worn examples of egregious misspending on this and that. They try to argue that by eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” we could take care of the deficit and the debt.
But this is totally silly. The Tea Party people know or should know that the real money (60% of the federal budget) is in entitlement spending. Are they willing to take less for themselves for the fiscal health of America? I doubt it. And so, no Republican is seriously talking about serious spending cuts, even when talking to the supposedly “conservative” base.
No real proposals on fiscal reform from the Republicans running for president
And this is why in this contentious and unpleasant Republican primary season we may hear a lot of shouting about totally peripheral issues like contraception and threatened religious freedoms, but almost nothing about what to do about the looming fiscal crisis. (Remember that the US last year already got the stain of a debt downgrade by Standard & Poor’s. How many more can we take, before creditors will start asking for higher interest rates?)
Neither Rick Santorum nor Mitt Romney have articulated solid plans to transform and reduce public spending. They say that they will know how to fix the economy. But we do not hear much about how they plan to fix Washington. And this is because nobody wants to be targeted by the Democrats as the one who wants to destroy Medicare and throw sick seniors in the snow in the middle of winter.
Ryan has a real plan
And this is why Congressman Paul Ryan deserves credit for having the political courage to at least introduce a budget aimed at changing the status quo. His blueprint does provide for an alternative to the current Medicare system that is on an unsustainable path. His budget also proposes serious tax reform consisting in simplification and closing most loopholes. There would be only to rates, 25% and 10%, while corporate tax rates would go down to 25%, roughly the international average, this way making America more attractive as a place to do business.
Details aside, Ryan’s budget is something that in better times would have been regarded as a good basis for a serious debate. But we are in bad times. So, it will go nowhere in the US Congress. While serious debates on spending are taking place at the state level, at the national level we mostly have posturing, demagoguery and cheap populism. Obama wants to tax the rich in the name of “fairness”. Santorum wants to go back to religion inspired ethics as a way to revitalize America. Gingrich wants to give you $ 2.50 a gallon gasoline. Ron Paul wants to abolish the Federal Reserve. And finally, front runner Mitt Romney wants your vote because he has credentials as a business manager. What a crew!
Ryan is serious, the others are not
Paul Ryan’s budget is an attempt to get serious about real and tangible problems before they really turn into fiscal emergencies. But I see no appetite for seriousness elsewhere. Voters want comforting messages, and not cold showers. They do not want bad news, and they would rather shoot the messenger than reflect on what they are told.
Sadly, in this political context, this budget is a symbolic act by a serious man who probably wishes that his colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, would have the guts to be statesmen and carry the unpleasant but real message to the people:
“Fellow Americans, we are already borrowing 41 cents for every dollar we spend. The percentage keeps growing, along with our annual deficits and national debt. Time to get serious and start cutting spending. And most of the money Washington spends –sorry to tell you– goes to you. So you will have to take less. Vote for me, and I’ll get this done”.