Does Paul Ryan Really Want to Pass a Budget?

Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wi) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 6 Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

On the occasion of Paul Ryan’s newest Path to Prosperity this week, I wrote the same post I always write when the Republican Representative from Wisconsin releases a budget plan (2012 and 2013). I get cranky about these plans because they look and sound like legislation but are not legislation. They consistently lack the detail to be turned into law, and I argued that there’s no clear evidence he’s interested in passing laws.

To complain about a politician is to shout into a void; there is seldom a response. On Wednesday, though, I got an e-mail from Conor Sweeney, Ryan’s communications director. Sweeney suggested I might be confused about what a budget resolution is, how the appropriations process works, and which committees write tax law. And this: “The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 is a law,” Sweeney wrote. “Any guess who authored it?”

Paul Ryan authored it. Sweeney is right. It was lazy of me to say that he isn’t interested in passing laws when he went and passed one last year. And Sweeney is right again: There are important distinctions between a budget resolution (which sets guidelines for Congress), appropriations bills (which actually spend money), and tax bills (which come up through the Ways and Means Committee).

What has always bothered me about the yearly appearance of the Path to Prosperity is that it’s none of these. It’s just a document prepared by the head of the House Committee on the Budget. It can be turned into a budget resolution, and usually is, so it can get passed by the House.

Yet no one ever expects it to become a law for two reasons. First, it has never resembled anything a Democratic president might sign, even after prolonged negotiations. Second, it lays out the need for hard choices and then neglects to provide detail on what the hard choices might be. You could say almost the same of the White House’s annual budget. It provides exhaustive detail but isn’t close enough to the Republicans’ goals that they’re even willing to pick it up with a pair of tweezers.

House Republicans have succeeded, for the past three and a half years, in orienting the fight in Washington around the deficit. Arguing is part of democracy, but legislating is arguing that results in someone picking up a pen. Reading the Path to Prosperity every year, and watching Ryan’s actions, I’ve come to believe that, for now, he wants the argument more than he wants the pen.

Earlier this year I wrote about research from Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. What encourages a party to compromise, Lee has found, is defeat—crushing political defeat, so severe that there is no hope of power within the decade. She pointed out that in any given election year over the past decade, both parties have had a plausible chance of winning a house of Congress. Parties have no reason to compromise now, when they can win it all next year.

The argument in Washington, then, becomes not about getting to an agreement but about drawing distinctions. Parties never used to hold symbolic votes with this kind of frequency, votes that served a political purpose but had no hope of becoming law. Now symbolic votes are almost all that Congress does.

Before the bill he passed last year, Paul Ryan was an actor in a set of negotiations that could have become law. He sat on the National Commission on Fiscal Stability and Reform (pdf), arguing for several months with Democrats and Republicans inside and outside government. In the end, the commission came up with a long list of hard choices. Ryan declined to endorse them, as did several other legislators and the president. Then, with other politicians on both sides, he made sure the commission’s compromises never became legislation.

It’s laudable that Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington state got together and produced a signable bill last year. But that bill didn’t fix the problem. It didn’t eliminate the deficit. It put a placeholder in the negotiations until after this fall’s elections. And with the reappearance this spring of the Path to Prosperity, Ryan and his party have returned to the practice of symbolic documents that only resemble legislation.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get more Republicans elected to Congress this year. Or with wanting to put a Republican in the White House in two years. But we shouldn’t confuse legislation-like positioning statements with a desire to fix problems now, through actual legislation.

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