At first look, the budget unveiled today by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) advances much-needed reforms and importantly accomplishes the crucial goal of balancing the budget within the decade, though this is partially on the coattails of Obama’s tax increases. Not a silver bullet, it is more of a stasis budget, rather than a bolder plan that builds on the reforms of previous years.
There are six things that each budget from the House, Senate, and President should accomplish. These are laid out in the Heritage plan, Saving the American Dream, which:
- Balances the budget in less than 10 years, without raising taxes, and keeps the budget in balance thereafter;
- Swiftly overhauls entitlement programs, including Social Security, to guarantee economic security to seniors while making the programs affordable;
- Repeals Obamacare in its entirety;
- Fully funds defense;
- Rolls back discretionary spending; and
- Rolls back recent tax increases with a sweeping, growth-oriented tax reform plan and caps taxes at the historical average of 18.5 percent.
Here’s how, at first blush, the Ryan plan measures up:
Gets to Balance. The Ryan budget achieves an important improvement over last year by balancing the budget within 10 years. The President’s budgets have never even attempted this, and given the Senate’s rusty skills in budget writing, it’s unlikely they would choose this course, either. The Ryan budget slows the growth of spending to about 3.4 percent per year, compared to roughly 5 percent today, with about $5 trillion less spending.
But, regrettably, Ryan’s budget also relies on Obama’s $618 billion fiscal cliff tax increase and Obamacare’s $1 trillion in tax hikes (more on this next) to get to balance. This means that tax levels rise almost immediately to 19.1 percent of GDP, well over the 18.5 percent benchmark. Balance is important, but so is the size of government. Without the tax increase, this budget would have had to have been more assertive in attacking spending and reforming entitlements to achieve and sustain balance.
And while the intent, we are told, is to stay in balance in the coming years and decades, regrettably, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has not updated its long-term model yet, there is no CBO scoring to say how or whether this happens.
Repeals Obamacare Spending, But Keeps the Taxes. The vital organs of Obamacare—the insurance exchange subsidies and Medicaid expansions—are scheduled to start next year. Ryan’s budget takes the correct and necessary step of repealing them. But, as noted above, perhaps the biggest shortcoming of this budget is that it keeps the tax increases associated with Obamacare. These tax hikes are the oxygen that fuels the fire of ever bigger spending. But the entire fire needs to be put out—all of Obamacare should be repealed, including its tax hikes.
Defense Funding Levels Mixed. Like last year, the Ryan budget protects defense from the eviscerating sequestration cuts. This is sound. As North Korea’s posturing shows, the world is not a safer place today. But the national defense budget has been squeezed by Obama’s reductions just when U.S. forces need replenishment and modernization. Ryan’s budget essentially adopts the defense spending caps in the Budget Control Act without sequestration. This is better than the President’s plainly inadequate funding for current and future needs, and certainly better than the sequester, but still less than what is required.
Entitlement Reforms; More Needed. Ryan continues to be a strong leader here, tackling Medicare’s abject failures head on. His signature solution of a premium support model for Medicare is the hallmark of his budget. Moving to a patient-centered model would free retirees from relying on the unstable and unsustainable government-run Medicare program and restrain costs through the competition rather than price-fixing. The sooner this transition is made, the better.
But the transition is too slow, as it once again exempts those over 55 from these changes to Medicare. Our spending problem is so severe that all Americans should be part of the solution. While this “grandfather” clause is understandable, most Americans this age will have more than a decade remaining in their working lives. We cannot continue to keep leaving one more year of the baby boomer generation out of the solution because Washington fails to act.
Though the budget takes the first step on by turning Medicaid into a block grant, more important is to move the mainstream Medicaid population into private insurance.
And discouragingly, like last year, there is no Social Security reform at all. This is especially disappointing, given the current discussions of commonsense, simple reforms like increasing the retirement age or moving to a more accurate measure of inflation like chained CPI.
Reduces Non-Defense Discretionary Spending. By extending the Budget Control Act spending caps for two years and keeping sequestration levels, the Ryan budget makes strong reductions to this spending. It also assumes some worthy and long overdue reforms, such as consolidating the federal government’s 49 job training programs, many of which are ineffective, and first steps at reining in farm subsidies.
Growth-Oriented Tax Reform. The Ryan budget lays out important principles for tax reform and rightly rejects closing tax preferences (“loopholes”) just to raise revenue. True tax reform is revenue neutral: Any revenue raised by eliminating tax preferences should be offset by lowering tax rates. The budget sets the same, pro-growth goals for fewer, lower rates and territoriality as last year.
Bottom Line: The Ryan budget delivers on its new promise this year—to balance the budget within the decade. Unfortunately, it does use higher taxes to help achieve this. It maintains Ryan’s signature reform to Medicare, which will go far toward reining in unaffordable entitlement spending.
Though more could be done along the lines of Saving the American Dream to advance bolder entitlement reforms and to throw off the yoke of Obama’s tax hikes, this budget takes first steps toward reining in spending and reforming entitlements. And if preliminary news reports are to believed, this plan is sure to be far superior to the Senate’s version now awaiting its finishing touches replete with still more tax increases, spending and looming deficits.
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