Paul Ryan’s window of opportunity
Capitol Hill must cut spending to avoid debt crisis
Nobody spends borrowed money faster than Washington. Lawmakers blew through $232 billion in February alone, spending their most recent $1.2 trillion loan at breakneck speed. House Speaker John A. Boehner insisted last summer on making dollarfor-dollar cuts in return for increasing the federal government’s borrowing limit, but, so far, not a buck has been matched in actual deficit reduction. Mr. Boehner’s push for fiscal responsibility took center stage as the House began its work Wednesday on the 2013 budget.
Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending blueprint starts the process of a major reconciliation bill with actual entitlement reform expedited for a floor vote in May. While President Obama agreed in concept to Mr. Boehner’s demand for restraint, he wanted tax hikes to make up the difference. Their final deal punted the decision on cuts to a supercommittee, with a trigger mechanism in place to automatically sequester funds for 10 years if it failed to meet deficit-reduction targets. The sequester was Mr. Obama’s way of forcing Republicans to cave on tax hikes to avoid half of the cuts hitting national defense.
Democrats are pretending the sequester won’t happen so they can keep borrowing money without consequences. The White House budget said the sequester should be replaced with tax hikes, but it gave no concrete mechanism for accounting for the first $98 billion in deficit reduction. Mr. Obama thus leaves open the possibility of the military getting smacked with a $55 billion cut at the beginning of 2013, while troops are still fighting in Afghanistan.
Mr. Ryan gave reconciliation instructions to six committees to find at least $18 billion in deficit reduction next year and $116 billion over five years. His suggestions for saving money included means testing entitlements and making federal employees’ pensions more like the private sector. Because a reconciliation bill cannot be filibustered, it would need just a handful of Democratic votes to clear the Senate, creating a real opportunity for change. This is the only way for Congress to stop automatically funding those programs year after year, regardless of the expense.
Some conservative members of the GOP caucus don’t want to wait five years. Budget Committee member Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican, may vote against the bill because of the way the sequester is handled. An aide to another conservative member explained the problem, saying, “We should cut $100 billion in this year, like the debt-ceiling deal requires, instead of delaying and spreading it out over the next five years. What stops us from delaying the cuts again next year?”
Mr. Ryan could have resorted to Washington gimmicks to pay for the sequester by counting the savings from repealing Obamacare immediately. Its repeal would save far more than $98 billion, but the benefit wouldn’t kick in for a few years. Mr. Ryan’s plan of pushing for changes to the ordinarily untouchable mandatory spending programs is a smart move that should be embraced.