On Tuesday, with the Republicans of the House Budget Committee fanned out behind him, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) presented his third budget plan in three years. He and the Republicans on the stage, he said, had been “working together, just like families do around the country.” Working and families are evidently two of the lessons Ryan took from last year’s election, and they have together replaced his previous favorite word, entrepreneurs. Working together, Republicans and Republicans have come to agree not so much on a budget as a hundred-page statement of principles.
Whatever’s missing in Washington, it’s not a hundred pages of principle. Ryan’s first such volume—his 2011 Path to Prosperity—was at least new. A Republican admitted that Medicare would have to be trimmed, and he committed on paper to make dramatic changes to non-defense discretionary spending. It was a path that could never, ever become law. Yet it aspired to a surprising kind of honesty. And its author was a bowhunter. Which was great. The Republican House passed it, and there it sat.
Ryan’s next Path to Prosperity offered essentially the same plan, with fewer details. The House passed it, and there it sat.
This year, another Path—with few changes. It suggests that Congress reduce discretionary spending by cutting waste and by passing a law that would force itself to reduce spending. It proposes to “substantially” lower individual tax rates, with an upper bracket of 25 percent. It will simplify the tax code, eliminating loopholes, but it again fails to identify a single one.
The numbers this year are slightly different than in years past. They take advantage of the compromise on top marginal tax rates that Republicans reached with the president over the Christmas season: higher taxes, more revenue, easier to balance. But all that’s really new here is the tone. Ryan titles one subsection “the Human Scale.” There’s still a section on the consequences of a debt crisis, but this time it includes “Impact on the Individual,” which notes the number of police officers fired when Stockton, Calif., defaulted on its debt.
And this year, Ryan wants to “revive the process,” as he calls it, wherein the House passes a budget, the Senate passes a budget, they reconcile their budgets in conference, and then the president signs it. This, too, is a commendable goal, but it’s hard to imagine how we get there from this morning.
Ryan says he doesn’t want any more backroom deals. He wants budgeting in the open. Yet the problem with budgets in Washington has never been a lack of positions out in the open. The positions of both parties are clear—and have been for years. The reason we have a bunch of plans, instead of a budget that becomes law, is that those plans never begin to approach each other in the form of a compromise.
We didn’t need to read Paul Ryan’s new draft of his old plan to know where he stands. We need him to cut a deal. He can cut it in a backroom or on the steps of the Capitol, but the difference between a plan and a budget is an agreement.