Unbalanced budgeting

In case anyone has missed the dueling budget proposals out this week from Rep. Paul Ryan on the Republican side and Sen. Patty Murray for the Democrats, don't fret. You could easily have slept through the last four months and missed nothing. They are pretty much where the two sides have been for even longer than that.

And that pretty well sums up where Washington stands on the issue of federal spending, taxes and the deficit. Both parties have won approval to some degree from voters for taking these stands, and so the incentive for actually coming up with a compromise is clearly too small for either to go out on a limb — at least for the moment. President Barack Obama acknowledged as much before his meeting today with House Republicans, saying in an interview on ABC News that the differences between the parties may be "just too wide."

We would place a pox on both their houses — and remind them, for instance, that public opinion survey after public opinion survey shows Americans want to see a compromise on this and other major issues — but Mr. Ryan's budget plan is simply too egregious to somehow equate it with what Senate Democrats are talking about.

The GOP plan is not identical to what Mr. Ryan has offered in the past (opposition to which helped President Obama get re-elected not too long ago). In many ways, it's worse. For instance, it sets an arbitrary 10-year time frame to balance the budget, instead of the 25-year calendar he's offered in the past.

Reducing tax rates for the wealthy, gutting safety-net programs like Medicaid and food stamps; repealing Obamacare coverage for millions of Americans; turning Medicare into a voucher program and thereby putting the elderly at risk; tossing out Wall Street reforms; and drastically shrinking federal spending on such vital needs as education, transportation and other forms of domestic spending: These are the chief features of the Ryan plan.

The document is nothing short of a testament to the consequences of gerrymandering and the perverse incentive House Republicans face to toe the line with the tea party extremists — in order to stave off a potential primary threat in 2014 — rather than propose something that might actually pass. How else to explain a budget plan that assumes Democrats would blithely agree to turn back the clock on health care reform? What, they are going to reverse themselves now after surviving a Supreme Court challenge and seeing Mr. Obama run on it and win?

Republican-held congressional districts are now drawn in such a way that Democrats have little chance of capturing a House majority no matter how unpopular the Ryan budget may be with most of the country. So the more extreme the GOP budget plan, the better — for the incumbents. The shock is only that it merely reduces the top income tax bracket from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Surely, someone fell asleep there.

Senate Democrats would trim the budget by about $1 trillion and increase revenue through raising taxes and closing tax loopholes by roughly the same amount. That, too, seems a shout-out to their base. But at least that basic approach — a mix of new revenue and budget cuts — is a more reasonable agenda that allows all Americans to share in the required sacrifice.

The question on the Democratic side has always been: When push comes to shove, will members actually be willing to trim popular entitlement programs like Medicare? Ironically, the Ryan budget gives them cover, and that's what is so maddening about it (or should be to GOP voters). Democrats find it far preferable to present themselves to voters as opponents of extremist GOP austerity plans than as authors of a balanced deficit-reduction proposal.

President Obama can spend his days wooing Mr. Ryan and House Republicans all he wants. It's difficult to believe he'll make much headway there. His best chance to take a serious whack at the deficit will likely start in the Senate, but only if he can win over enough Republicans to avoid a filibuster. From there, it's on to the House and the possibility, albeit remote, that sufficient pressure can be brought to bear to win over enough GOP votes to build a coalition.

That's a lot of ifs, particularly as the U.S. economy continues to show some encouraging signs and the deficit shrinks, however modestly, on its own. The nation doesn't need a balanced budget within 10 years; it needs a bipartisan approach to taxes and spending that will put Washington back on a sustainable path. But as long as members of Congress face such a strong incentive not to compromise, it's difficult to believe any reconciliation of two such opposite visions of the future is even possible.

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