Paul Ryan and the Politics of Debt

US Republicans push deep long-term spending cutsAFP/Getty Images – US Republican Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, speaks during a news …

By MICHAEL CROWLEY

For months, Washington has talked with growing alarm about the storm clouds of debt gathering over America’s fiscal horizon. Last fall,a bipartisan commission offered its plan for solving the debt crisis. But its recommendations went nowhere, and the talk has gone on ad nauseam. Nobody with any real authority, including President Obama, despite his own exhortations about the urgent need for action, has offered a comprehensive plan to tackle our-long term debt.

That changed today, with the ambitious – though some might say radical, others politically suicidal – new budget proposal from Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee. Ryan’s budget plan is the first real legislative bid in what will be an epic political battle over the country’s long-term fiscal future. Ryan proposes cutting $5.8 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years. The plan includes major overhauls of Medicare and Medicaid, a broad reform of the tax code, and reductions in domestic spending (including a modest $78 billion trim to defense spending over 10 years). (See “40 Under 40: The Rising Stars of American Politics.”)

At at a press conference unveiling his plan this morning, Ryan said he was on a “moral imperative” to avert a possible “economic collapse.” And he presented himself as a heroic truth-teller in a city of moral cowards. “For too long, Washington has not been honest with the American people,” Ryan said.

So who is the GOP’s man of the moment? A telegenic supply-side conservative, Ryan cut his teeth as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett in the mid-1990s. Even back then, says Pete Wehner, for whom Ryan worked at Empower America, “it was clear that he was a bright star in the constellation.” After serving as legislative director for Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, Ryan mounted a successful bid for Wisconsin’s First Congressional District seat in 1998, at age 28. Now 41, the avid outdoorsman is ensconced in a district that shares his pro-life, pro-gun-rights views, and has ascended to become the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee. “He’s an unabashed policy wonk,” says Mark Green, a fellow Wisconsin Republican and friend who was elected to the House the same year as Ryan. “This is a guy who would take policy papers back to the office with him at night and stay up late looking through them.” See “Twelve for ’12: A Dozen Republicans Who Could Be the Next President.”)

But Ryan’s ideas haven’t always been embraced by his party. In fact, he has been sticking thorns in Congress’s side since he began offering amendments to reduce lawmakers’ pork projects a decade ago. In 2003 he forced Republicans to put free-market reforms in the Medicare prescription-drug program before he and other fiscal conservatives would vote for it. In 2006 he wrote legislation that would give the President line-item veto power – a move lawmakers on both sides have long resisted. In 2007 he called for earmark transparency; two years later, he was seeking a moratorium on the pet giveaways. And at the heart of Ryan’s unconventional thinking was his “Roadmap for America’s Future” – an ambitious 87-page, 75-year plan released last year that served in many ways as the inspiration for Tuesday’s budget proposal. Ryan was crafting this plan for years, but it wasn’t until fiscal politics turned and he rose to the helm of the House Budget Committee that he had enough clout to get his ideas into the mainstream.

Now, the question is how honest the coming debate over the debt crisis will be. Democrats are already counterattacking Ryan’s plan as less an act of budgetary efficiency than a heartless assault on seniors and the poor that largely spares the well-off. Even the tax reforms in Ryan’s plan are revenue neutral, they note, asking nothing more of big business or the wealthy. And though he peddles the idea of honest talk and tough medicine, Ryan sidesteps the politically-fraught topic of Social Security, even though he agrees it is a long-term driver of debt. (Vote for the world’s most influential people in the 2011 TIME 100 Poll.)

The coming debate will also be, in large measure, a re-litigation of Barack Obama’s health care plan. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Obama’s plan will save $130 billion over 10 years (estimates vary). If that forecast is accurate, then Obama has already taken a major step towards slashing the national debt. But Ryan simply doesn’t buy that figure, and claims at a press conference unveiling his plan this morning that repealing health care will save $1.5 trillion. That’s a $1.63 trillion dispute – one that won’t easily be reconciled, and one not likely to give us a surplus of the honesty Ryan has called for.

If it goes anywhere at all, Ryan’s plan will first change dramatically. Democrats want no part of it – and the same goes even for many Republicans who may sympathize with the plan’s goals but worry it outpaces the public’s true appetite for deficit-cutting. But Democrats can’t afford to ignore Ryan’s plan completely; they, too, have substantive worries about the debt. And, as President Obama’s own rhetoric demonstrates, they know the public wants some action on this front. So Ryan has, in effect, fired a starting gun today for the great debt battle. Let’s see whether Washington can deliver America an honest and constructive fight.

With Alex Altman and Jay Newton-Small

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