Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ryan's Rule

From today's National Review Online:

Under a new rule, Paul Ryan can set budget levels for 2011.

All eyes will be on President Obama this evening as he delivers his much-anticipated State of the Union address. But it’s a momentous day for House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) as well. Not only has he been tapped to deliver the GOP response to Obama’s speech, but by the time the president arrives at the Capitol, the House almost certainly will have passed a rules resolution giving him unilateral authority to roll back the budget to 2008 levels. This, as you’ll recall, was a central component of the GOP’s “Pledge to America.”

To be clear, the rule itself does not cut spending; it merely gives Ryan the ability to set limits that the House Appropriations Committee must respect when it passes a spending resolution for the remainder of fiscal year 2011. These limits are usually set by a “concurrent” resolution — that is, one passed by the House and the Senate but not approved by the president — but Congress failed to pass one last year. Defense spending and entitlements are not included. And of course, to take effect, a spending resolution that passes the House under Ryan’s policy will also have to go through the Democratic Senate and President Obama.

But today’s vote on the rule will force all House members to go on the record on spending cuts and — because most Democrats will likely oppose the measure — set up a contrast between the two parties ahead of the president’s address. It will also serve to highlight Ryan’s remarks. All considered, today will mark the opening salvo of the showdown over the budget.

Predictably, House Democrats are up in arms over the new rule. They say that in addition to excluding the Senate from the budget process, it puts too much power in the hands of one person. And not just any one person. Ryan’s reputation as a perennial budget hawk has many on the left in a frenzy over the prospect of deep spending cuts. Many are already sounding the alarm over entitlement programs, which Ryan dared to single out for reform in his much-maligned (by the Left) “Roadmap for America’s Future” — despite the fact that, again, these are not included in Ryan’s new budget powers. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that simply by selecting Ryan to give the SOTU rebuttal, House Republicans were “doubling down on their disastrous plans to gamble Social Security funds on Wall Street and dismantle Medicare.” The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein predicted that elevating Ryan in such a way could come back to haunt the GOP by highlighting the “Roadmap,” which Klein called a “timebomb” for Republicans.

As for the vote itself, Democrats contend that it is little more than a publicity stunt — an attempt to steal the president’s thunder on the day of his address. Rules Committee ranking member Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) chided Republicans for trying to “cut spending with a press release.”

Republicans, on the other hand, point out that similar authority was given to the budget chairman in 1999, after Congress had similarly failed to adopt a budget resolution the previous year. “It strikes me as an odd communications strategy for House Democrats to devote considerable time and energy to draw attention to their own historic budget failure,” Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney tells National Review Online. “They oversaw an unprecedented breakdown in the budget process for fiscal year 2011, and are now complaining that fiscal year 2011 has deviated from the normal budget process.”

In a hearing last week, House Rules Committee chairman David Dreier (R., Calif.) emphasized that Republicans, contrary to some Democratic claims, would not be “gutting” any programs simply by returning to 2008 levels, and that the new rule was “merely the very first step in an ongoing effort to bring our federal budget back into the black.”

The House Appropriations Committee must draft a spending bill to fund the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 (through September) once the current continuing resolution expires on March 4. Appropriations chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.) has welcomed the new rule. “As I have said before, it is my intention to craft the largest series of spending cuts in the history of Congress,” he said in a statement. “My committee is working diligently on this right now.”

Another looming deadline is February 15, when President Obama is due to release his budget for fiscal year 2012. That’s when Ryan will get his first crack at drafting his own annual budget. The bulk of the budget fight will consist of efforts to reconcile these competing proposals. “I expect our numbers will be slightly lower than his,” Ryan joked at the National Press Club earlier this month. Another obvious point of contention will be Republican efforts to exclude from the budget any funds slated for the implementation of Obamacare.

Today’s vote, Obama’s address, and Ryan’s response will lay the groundwork for the struggle ahead. In fact, a war of words is already underway, as early reports indicate the president will be discussing the need for “investments” in areas such as infrastructure, clean energy, and education. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) says that’s a “code word for more spending,” but added that Republicans are eager to hear what Obama has to say. After a series of moves suggesting that the White House intends to embrace the political center, they hope to find out just where he stands on fiscal issues. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) called the speech “a trust-but-verify moment” for the GOP. Either way, don’t expect an overabundance of applause lines designed to appeal to Republicans.

Of course, a bitter fight between the two parties over budget cuts is to be expected. But there have also been signs of a conflict brewing within the GOP itself. The conservative House Republican Study Committee released a proposal last Thursday that would cut a whopping $2.5 trillion over the next decade. The plan would cap federal spending at 2006 levels — significantly lower than 2008 levels — and was seen by many as a direct challenge to the House Republican leadership. “This is the day we stop kicking the budget can down the road and get our fiscal house in order,” Rep. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) said at a press conference introducing the plan.

The Rules Committee has already made efforts to shore up its proposal. The resolution the House is voting on today includes an amendment from freshman member Rep. Tim Scott (R., S.C.) that changes the original text authorizing Ryan “to reduce spending through a transition to non-security spending at fiscal year 2008 levels.” It now reads: “. . . to fiscal year 2008 levels or less.”

The measure is certain to pass the House, so Democrats will quickly turn their attention to Ryan’s response to the president. Now that his party is in the majority, the new budget chair will be under much greater scrutiny. On the left, he’ll be criticized no matter what — he’ll either “destroy the middle class” by cutting too much, or break campaign promises by cutting too little.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are thrilled to have Ryan in charge of setting spending limits and responding to the president. Republicans believe that few are better suited than Ryan to make the case for — and then implement — fiscal prudence.

— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.

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