J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Paul Ryan with fellow Republican Rep. Tom McClintock (r) Tuesday, April 5, 2011.
"Make no little plans," are words attributed to the famous 19th Century Chicago urban planner Daniel Burnham. "They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized."
No one could ever accuse Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the House Budget Committee chairman who introduced the House Republican's proposed budget for fiscal 2012 Tuesday, of making little plans. And he certainly has stirred passions. Whether his proposed budget will ever be realized to greater or lesser degrees remains to be seen, however.
Ryan says his budget titled the "Path to Prosperity" would result in $5.8 trillion less in projected government spending over ten years and $4.4 trillion less in deficits over the same time span compared to President Obama's budget.
While those numbers are too large for most voters to wrap their minds around, most people get the point: Ryan is claiming for his proposal monstrous savings. That is likely to be music to the ears of many Americans concerned about the national debt and deficits.
But then there are the parts of his proposal likely to grate that have led some political observers to describe him as politically courageous. Ryan tackles entitlement spending.
Ryan would radically change Medicare and Medicaid although he mostly leaves Social Security alone, perhaps sensing that taking on all three might be even too much for an iconoclastic congressman.
For those younger than 55 years old, Ryan would reshape Medicare to turn it into a "premium-support" program. In other words, instead of the current single-payer approach of Medicare, under Ryan's approach seniors would get payments of up to $15,000 a year to buy health insurance from private insurers.
Critics doubt this would do anything to control healthcare inflation which, along with the aging of the Baby Boom, help explain why Medicare's costs are expected to drive deficits if nothing is done. Critics also complain that Ryan would leave future seniors with significantly less comprehensive health care coverage than today's seniors receive.
Similarly, Medicaid would be completely overhauled, with states receiving block grants that would give them much greater flexibility in determining how to provide health care for lower income citizens.
Under Ryan's proposal, some states could choose to provide lower levels of health care assistance than they currently do.
Needless to say, it arguably takes some measure of bravery for a politician to propose reducing the benefits many Americans feel they are entitled to.
Ryan got into this subject somewhat at his Tuesday news conference.
REPORTER: What do you say to nervous Republicans who say this is a political kamikaze mission, that you've just given Democrats a big target that may ultimately cost Republicans their majority here?
RYAN: You know, none of them say that. Just kidding (laughs all around, some of them nervous from GOP lawmakers in the room.) You know, Jonathan, you look these people, these new people who just got here. None of them came here for a political career. They came here for a cause. This is not a budget, this is a cause. And, look, we can all go do something else with our lives. We're just not here so we can get this lapel pin that says we're a member of Congress. We're here to try and fix this country's problems. If that means we have to go first and offer solutions, fine. It that means we're giving our political adversaries a political weapon to use against us, which by the way they will have to distort, demagogue and lie to use it, shame on them. We owe it to the country to give them an honest debate.
Ryan's attempt to position critics of his budget plan as demagogues was immediately undermined by criticism from the two wise elders who co-chaired the President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility Ryan was himself a member of.
The Hill quoted from a letter by chair Democrat Erskine Bowles, former Clinton White House chief of staff, and Republican Alan Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming:
"While we are encouraged that Chairman Ryan has come forward with a serious plan, we are concerned that it falls short of the balanced, comprehensive approach needed to achieve the broad bipartisan agreement necessary to enact a responsible plan."
"The plan largely exempts defense spending from reductions and would not apply any of the savings from eliminating or reducing tax expenditures as part of tax reform to deficit reduction. As a result, the Chairman's plan relies on much larger reductions in domestic discretionary spending than does the Commission proposal, while also calling for savings in some safety net programs — cuts which would place a disproportionately adverse effect on certain disadvantaged populations."
And while some were willing to give Ryan credit for having the stomach to take on the sacred cow of Medicare, others weren't. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, disputed at a news conference that Ryan was a profile in courage:
It's dressed up in a lot of nice-sounding rhetoric about reform but in fact it's the same old tired playbook we've seen before.They preserve and in fact increase tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans. They keep in place tax subsidies, tax give-aways to the oil and gas industry and other special corporate interests, while they cut education for our kids, while they cut investments in research in science, and while they end the Medicare guarantee for seniors...
... It is not courageous to protect the most powerful interests and the very wealthy at the expense of critical investments in our country. And yet that is what they do going forward.
As Van Hollen's critique demonstrates, Ryan's plan presents Democrats with a target-rich environment that gives Democrats plenty of material to get their base stirred up and perhaps shift some political independents into their column.
And if the conventional wisdom is true about how reluctant voters are to part with their entitlements, Republicans could pay a price for a budget proposal that has little chance of being enacted.
The Ryan plan is clearly going to spur a heated debate on the nation's priorities that echoes through the 2012 general election campaign.
As a sidenote, one Republican goal is to win the messaging war with Democrats by contrasting Ryan's ambitious proposal with President Obama's 2012 budget. Republicans and some Democrats alike have criticized Obama's budget for not doing more to address the nation's long-term fiscal problems.
Republicans are seeking points with voters for showing leadership while at the same time using the president's failure to reform entitlements as a way to further paint Obama as an indecisive leader who believes in a big government and big spending.
At an appearance in the White House press room Tuesday, Obama was asked by a reporter about the Ryan proposal. He said:
Now, we'll have time to have a long discussion about next year's budget, as well as the long-term debt and deficit issues, where we're going to have some very tough negotiations. And there are going to be I think very sharply contrasting visions in terms of where we should move the country. That's a legitimate debate to have.
In other words, expect the president to use Ryan's proposal as a political cudgel against Republicans for much of the coming presidential campaign.