Editorial Board

Paul Ryan's Budgetary Fantasy

It's the time of year when Paul Ryan releases his familiar budget blueprint.
Keep dreaming, Representative Ryan. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

What's the difference between Dave Camp and Paul Ryan? Camp is a powerful but obscure Midwestern Republican who has abandoned his ambitions for fiscal reform. Ryan is only semi-obscure.

Ryan, who gained some fame as a vice presidential nominee two years ago, is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Today he released his 2015 budget, and it is essentially a partisan wish list, comforting Republican constituencies and upsetting Democratic ones. It stands in stark contrast to the bold tax-reform plan produced in February by Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which spread its pains and gains more equitably.

Camp, whose plan was subsequently dismissed by no less than House Speaker John Boehner as "blah, blah, blah," has since decided to leave the House altogether: He announced his retirement yesterday. Ryan's abandonment is more subtle. He's not leaving Congress -- he may even take over Camp's committee -- and he deserves credit for reshaping public debate on debt in recent years. But this budget suggests he has other priorities.

Ryan's budget proposes a reduction in the top income tax rate to 25 percent from 39.6 percent, an increase in defense spending, and a $5 trillion cut in domestic spending over 10 years, including deep cuts to food stamps and other programs that help keep poor households afloat. Ryan's last budget also required deep cuts -- so deep, in fact, that some Republicans who had voted for the budget blueprint balked when it came time for specific appropriations. This year's version also makes use of something called "dynamic scoring," a dubious practice that allows Ryan to claim his plan would balance the budget in a decade.

On the positive side, Ryan makes his usual promise to cut farm subsidies, this time to the tune of $23 billion. He would cut $19 billion from the overextended, underutilized U.S. Postal Service. For future retirees currently under the age of 55, he would turn Medicare into a version of the Affordable Care Act, with a public option: Recipients would be able to choose private health plans on the market or retain traditional Medicare.

On the whole, however, Ryan's budget blueprint overstates the threat from long-term debt and understates the stresses of poverty and unemployment. There may soon be a time when cutting taxes for the wealthy and cutting spending for the poor makes good fiscal and political sense. Nothing about the current economy or tax structure suggests that time is now.

Camp's tax-reform proposal, like Ryan's budget, was based on conservative principles. Only it didn't make the poor bear the brunt of them. Camp paid for his reduced tax rates in part by cutting tax deductions, exclusions and credits -- including the sacred mortgage interest deduction for homeowners -- that mostly benefit the well-off. On the whole, the wealthy would have paid less in taxes but received fewer write-offs.

Camp's proposal was honest enough to make just about everyone in Washington squirm. Ryan hasn't risked a similar rejection. But his lack of courage will win no converts, either.

The goal of reducing the public dole is a good one. It's just hard to see how cuts to income support and social services in the midst of a weak labor market will improve many lives.