Profiles in Budgetary Courage

The budget plan introduced Tuesday by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and his fellow House Republicans is imperfect, as are all human creations, but they deserve some credit for at least being daring enough to offer up anything at all.

No matter how much one might wish for another option, there are only four things that any budget proposal can do. It can continue to hurtle the country headlong toward the fiscal cliff, impose massive tax hikes on almost every citizen, make steep cuts in government spending, or concoct some combination of the three. All four of these ideas poll badly, of course, and most politicians therefore prefer to stand foursquare against all of the above.

One of the most revealing moments of the Obama administration came last year when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testified before a Senate committee. Sen. Jeff Sessions, speaking in a severe Alabama accent, asked Geithner his opinion of a particular budget proposal that would increase the budget every year of the next ten years by hundreds of billions of dollars, and Geithner agreed that “absolutely, it is an excessively high interest burden, it is unattainable.” Clearly flummoxed by the response, Sessions reiterated that he was referring to the Obama budget plan, which Geithner’s boss had recently delivered to the Senate. Geithner seemed slightly surprised that anyone in the Senate had bothered to scan the document, and explained with a shrug that it was up to the legislative branch to find a sustainable solution, adding that “we’ll be able to see from the House, from this body, whether you people can find the political will to go deeper.”

At this year’s hearing, Geithner made clear the administration is no more eager some political will of its own and is happy to leave the necessary but unsavory reforms to Congress. Questioned once again by the dogged Sessions about the latest Obama proposal, Geithner conceded that “Even if congress were to enact this budget, we would still be left with, in the outer decades, as millions of Americans retire, what are still unsustainable commitments in Medicare and Medicaid.”

Nor have the congressional Democrats shown any political will when it comes to budgets. The Democrat-controlled Senate hasn’t passed any budget since April of 2009, voted down last year’s Obama budget by a convincing score of 97-0, and has yet to offer any new suggestions this year. Searching the internet for the House Democrats’ budget we found plenty of stories with such headlines as “Democrats ramp up attacks on House GOP budget proposal,” but nothing that spelled out an alternative plan.

The Ryan plan has no chance of passage, of course, and would be vetoed even if it were somehow passed by both chambers, which makes it all the more daring for them to expose themselves to the withering criticism that will surely come their way. They could have just as easily stayed quiet and run on the boast that at least they aren’t raising taxes, cutting spending, or doing some bi-partisan combination of the two. That would eventually lead to an economic catastrophe, of course, but that might not come until after the next election.

— Bud Norman