The Paul Ryan Promise
Republicans love the sound of a balanced budget. But it’s not as powerful a message as they think.
Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP
Shortly after 10:30 a.m., Tuesday Rep. Paul Ryan and the Republican members of his House Budget Committee entered the TV studio and took their places. They positioned themselves behind the economic guru of the party, holding white and green copies of The Path to Prosperity as tight as hymnals.
“What we have here,” said Ryan, “is a budget that balances the budget. A path to prosperity with a responsible balanced budget. We believe that we owe the American people a balanced budget. And for the third straight year, we’ve delivered it. In fact, we’ve balanced this budget in just 10 years. This is a document, a plan that balances the budget in just 10 years.”
In 25 seconds, Ryan had uttered some tense of the word “balance” five times. This was master-class message discipline, telegraphed weeks in advance. In the middle of January, Ryan had sold House Republicans on a three-part punt of the coming fiscal crises, climaxing with a budget that would balance in 10 years. His previous budgets took 25 years to come into balance. Some Republicans did their own math and panicked: Would Ryan be forced to expand his Medicare “premium support” plan to hit more seniors?
He wouldn’t. For all of its mystic, wonkish charms, a budget resolution doesn’t have to be very specific. Ryan eliminated the deficit in 2023 by counting new revenue from the “fiscal cliff” tax hikes, repealing Obamacare, restoring money that had been “raided” from Medicare, and cutting social programs by as much as 50 percent. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s math, he would balance the budget and Democrats wouldn’t.
As Ryan talked, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued cloned press releases to brag about this difference. “Will [New Hampshire Rep. Anne] Kuster Stand Up for a Balanced Budget?” they asked in one email. In another: “It’s time for [New York Rep.] Tim Bishop to step up to the plate and demand that SOMEONE in his party produce a balanced budget.”
It’s good, clean hit. Senate Democrats haven’t passed a budget resolution since 2009. (They have, obviously, funded the government. Remember, budgets are more about statements of principle than making numbers add up in real time.) On Wednesday, Washington Sen. Patty Murray will release a budget, which will include a rumored 1-1 ratio of tax hikes to spending cuts, but won’t balance. The White House has never produced a balanced budget. It’s hinting at a plan in which “the ratio of debt to GDP is below 3 percent”—stable, but not balanced.
Why do Democrats keep tumbling backward into this trap? Because they don’t think it’s a trap. Voters don’t punish them for failing to balance the budget. In 2012, Mitt Romney won voters who called “the deficit” the “most important issue” by a 2-1 landslide. And yet Romney’s eating birthday cupcakes in California somewhere, and Paul Ryan is stuck in the House, reintroducing his old budgets. Investors don’t punish the Democrats, either. In 2011, when Standard & Poors downgraded America’s debt rating, the agency fretted for a plan that fixed “the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.” It didn’t cry out for a balanced budget. And then everybody stopped paying attention to S&P.
Think back to the origins of this Ryan budget. Why does it balance in 10 years, not 25? Because back in January, at the House Republican retreat, it seemed like the sort of thing that could get the feral members in line. “This looks like a concession to the internal dynamics of the [Republican] conference,” says National Review columnist Ramesh Ponnuru. “It doesn’t make as much sense in the broader context of public opinion.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.