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Ryan budget redux

Out on the campaign trail in the nascent Republican presidential primary contest, it's a very different world from the one in which Mitt Romney famously divided the nation into makers and takers. Instead, you're likely to hear contenders for the party's nomination talking about income inequality as one of the fundamental problems of the nation. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have all been talking about it. Even Mr. Romney got into the act when he was briefly considering a presidential run, at one point proclaiming, "Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty in American than ever before." The GOP hopefuls generally have yet to back up the talk with policies — with the exception, to some extent, of Mr. Rubio — but the shift in tone and focus in undeniable.

And then you have the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, which is unabashedly partying like it's 2012. The budget template unveiled by House Republican leaders Tuesday reads exactly like the Paul Ryan budgets that the party has been pledging fealty to for the last four years. Mr. Ryan's name is no longer on it — he's moved from chairing the Appropriations Committee to chairing Ways and Means — but it's a reflection of the same Ayn Randian philosophy that the surest way for the government to help people is for the government to stop trying to help people. Or do much of anything else.

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The budget blueprint, which in itself has no legal force save as a guideline for where the House will go once negotiations with the Senate and White House begin in earnest, maintains sequester-level spending caps for both domestic and military spending. It partially privatizes Medicare, turns Medicaid into block grants for the states — a long-term recipe for an increase in the number of uninsured — and, for good measure, repeals the Affordable Care Act. Again.

If those who are trying to lead the party nationally are concerned about growing inequality in American society, those running the House of Representatives are assuredly not. This spending blueprint treats the budget deficit as the greatest threat facing the nation and sharply curtails spending in order to achieve a surplus by 2024. This despite the fact that the deficit as a percentage of the economy is projected to be at or below its historical average during the next several years and less than half the level it was when Mr. Ryan first presented his ideas. Meanwhile, it belies efforts to provide better opportunities for the economically disadvantaged by underinvesting in education — a point President Barack Obama highlighted Monday — and puts millions at risk of being bankrupted by illness by diminishing access to health insurance. It also fails to take into account the economic effect of major cuts to federal spending, something we have felt acutely in Maryland during the past few years but affects communities nationwide.

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House Republicans seem to fear no political repercussions from sticking to their guns. Few if any have lost their seats during the last two election cycles over their support for the Ryan budget; indeed, the GOP House majority is larger now than it was then. But it would be a mistake to view this as validation that the American public as a whole is interested in what they're selling. Rather, it's the product of severely gerrymandered districts in which most Republican lawmakers have nothing to fear except a challenge from the right.

For evidence of the disconnect between the attitudes of the House GOP caucus and that of the broader electorate, look not only to failure of the Romney campaign — which both featured Mr. Ryan as a running mate and a policy leader — but also to the cool reception this budget proposal and its predecessors have had in the Senate. Not only has it run into objections from defense hawks who worry that military spending increases promised through some budgetary trickery won't materialize, but it also puts at risk the large crop of Republican Senators who were elected from politically moderate or liberal states in the tea party wave of 2010 and who face re-election next year.

Even if it goes nowhere, as is once again likely, the House's stance presents a problem for the GOP heading into the 2016 election. Its presidential candidates can talk all they want about reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots, but it's going to be hard to convince voters that they mean it so long as the party is tied to a policy of every man for himself.

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