Paul Ryan's Deficit-Reduction Plan Is Not Much of One

Yesterday Representative Dave Camp (R-Mich.) announced his retirement. Camp, 60, was elected to the House the same year as John Boehner, in 1990. A Republican, his tenure in Congress predates the Republican wave elections of 1994 and 2010. Camp is a legislator in the way the Constitution describes it. He tries to get laws passed.

Also yesterday, Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) released this year’s Path to Prosperity (PDF), an annual exercise in which he presents a long document that, if followed, would eliminate the deficit in 10 years. This year’s Path is denser and full of details, although not ones that matter. As in the past, it contains none of the line-item cuts, program by program, that would make his ardently wished probity a reality.

When Camp leaves next year, Ryan is likely to replace him as chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, one of the most powerful seats in Washington. Paul Ryan is a congressman. But he is not a legislator in the Campian sense of the word. There is no evidence that he is interested in passing laws.

Camp was once among those who convinced Newt Gingrich to send the welfare reform bill back to Bill Clinton a third time, dropping cuts to Medicaid to get the president to sign. Last year he developed a real and collaborative relationship with Max Baucus (D-Mont), his Democratic counterpart in the Senate. The two wanted to reform the tax code, a goal so daring and toxic that Washington hasn’t pulled it off since 1986.

Baucus was picked to be U.S. ambassador to China. Still, Camp actually produced a discussion draft of a bill (PDF) in February, one that proposed to end tax breaks that were of real value to Washington lobbies. It would eliminate the mortgage interest deduction above the first million dollars of a mortgage. It would tax the income of a hedge fund manager as income. It freaked out all the right people.

Camp’s draft won’t become law in this election year. But it’s a draft of an actual bill, one that came at the end of a long discussion with actual Democrats, one that could be pushed back and forth, one that might even attract the signature of a Democratic president.

This year, Ryan’s Path includes with each section an “illustrative policy option,” one example of a potential cut. To save money on discretionary spending for transportation, for example, Ryan would eliminate Amtrak’s operating subsidies. But in the section titled “Pro-growth tax reform,” Path declines to provide even an illustrative policy option. “This resolution calls on comprehensive tax reform and lays out some principles,” it concludes, “but it does not embrace any particular plan.”

This is funny. Last year’s plan, too, declined to lay out any specific tax breaks it would cut—because Dave Camp’s plan was coming. It’s tempting to conclude that Paul Ryan is not, in fact, interested in committing himself to getting rid of any tax breaks at all.

Next year the Republicans will still be the majority party in the House. There’s a good chance that they will be the majority party in the Senate as well. Paul Ryan will write his sixth budget proposal. Will this be the one in which he finally tells us exactly what he’s going to cut? Or will that have to wait until we finally just give in and make him president?

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