As I listened to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan describe his latest budget plan in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, I couldn’t help thinking how different things will be in Britain today when Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne steps out of Number 11 Downing Street with a battered red briefcase holding his budget for the forthcoming year.
Ryan’s budget will almost surely be passed by the House of Representatives, all but four of whose Republican members voted for his budget last year. But it will not pass in the Senate, whose Democratic majority in defiance of legal requirements did not produce a budget for the last two years and is poised to not pass one again this year.
Britain’s parliamentary system works differently. The majority coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will pass Osborne’s budget in the House of Commons. It will be approved perfunctorily by the House of Lords and it will certainly not be vetoed by the Queen.
But Ryan’s initiative has moved us some distance toward what is in effect a parliamentary system and could move us much further along that trajectory if the elections go the Republicans’ way in November.
By proposing budgets that cut tax rates, require future changes in Medicare, maintain current defense spending rather than cutting it, and rein in discretionary domestic spending, Ryan has supposedly gone out on a dangerous limb.
And his fellow House Republicans, elected in a year of protest against huge increases in government spending and deficits, have been willing to go with him.
Ryan is arguing that we are on an unsustainable course that will lead inevitably to a debt crisis requiring far more painful adjustments than anything he is proposing. He notes that the Congressional Budget Office cannot even model the economy past 2027 because of looming debt. Think Greece.
His Senate counterpart, Democratic Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, tends to agree. But he’s been blocked from offering a budget by Harry Reid, Charles Schumer and others with their eyes always on the next election.
Ryan points out that his proposal to move Medicare toward a premium support system, with market competition between private insurance firms and an option to choose the current fee-for-service system, has been supported in various forms by Democrats — Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin, former Sen. John Breaux.
The raw material is there, this suggests, for bipartisan majorities for reform — if the president goes along.
Barack Obama, by ignoring the Simpson-Bowles commission and spiking (as a recent Washington Post article makes clear) a “grand bargain” on taxes and entitlements last summer, has made it clear he is not such a president.
The Republican presidential candidates seem more amenable. Their fiscal and budget proposals have been somewhat sketchy and their numbers may not add up. But they are also talking about Medicare reforms and changes in the tax code that would broaden the base and cut rates.
Mitt Romney in particular seems to be deferring to Ryan. He has modified his 59-point economic program with pledges to seek tax and entitlement reform. Ryan was scheduled to meet with him yesterday after his AEI speech.
Romney would be wise to listen. Ryan knows far more about the budget than any of the presidential candidates. He combines deep policy knowledge with sure political instincts, a combination rare in politicians, especially Republicans.
If Romney is elected and Republicans win a majority in the Senate and hold their majority in the House, it seems possible that Ryan — more than the new president — would seize the initiative on tax and entitlement policy.
He could be the effective equivalent of a chancellor of the exchequer, as Osborne is for David Cameron and Gordon Brown was for Tony Blair, driving budget and economic policy.
The conventional political wisdom is that Ryan’s budget is politically suicidal. But conventional wisdom also held that voters would like the stimulus package and come to like Obamacare. Neither has happened.
Republicans’ standing in generic House vote polls did not slump when Ryan’s budget passed last year. Right now it’s about the same as at this point in the 2010 election cycle.
Maybe, just maybe, voters will reward politicians who tackle looming problems rather than those, like Obama, who keep kicking the can down the road.