At least it has numbers in it

AT LEAST IT HAS NUMBERS IN IT…. A year ago, as the debate over the federal budget got underway, House Republicans held a press conference to boast about their alternative budget plan. It was among the year’s most humiliating fiascos — the GOP’s “budget” didn’t include any numbers. It was a reminder that when it comes to national politics, Republicans aren’t quite ready to sit at the grown-ups’ table.

This week, however, they’re giving it another shot. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, unveiled a plan yesterday that, he insists, really does eliminate the enormous budget deficit that Republicans created during the Bush/Cheney era. It also, by the way, includes numbers. Ezra Klein noted that the proposal is “an object lesson in why so few politicians are willing to answer the question ‘but how will you save all that money?'”

To move us to surpluses, Ryan’s budget proposes reforms that are nothing short of violent. Medicare is privatized. Seniors get a voucher to buy private insurance, and the voucher’s growth is far slower than the expected growth of health-care costs. Medicaid is also privatized. The employer tax exclusion is fully eliminated, replaced by a tax credit that grows more slowly than medical costs. And beyond health care, Social Security moves to a system of private accounts that CBO says will actually cost more than the present arrangement, further underscoring how ancillary the program is to our budget problem.

Ezra gives Ryan credit for at least stepping up and putting a borderline-crazy proposal on paper. Kevin Drum questions whether the conservative lawmaker really deserves any praise at all.

I give Ryan credit for being more forthcoming than most supposed deficit hawks, but the truth is that for the most part he doesn’t explain how he’s going to save all that money. It’s true that he’s got a plan for Social Security private accounts, a plan for Medicare vouchers, and a plan for tax credits to replace the current tax deductibility of health insurance. It’s good conservative boilerplate.

But it turns out that’s all it is. Those things themselves don’t really save any money. The real action comes from a collection of arbitrary spending limits, but these limits don’t offer any clues about how we’re going to meet them. There’s a freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending from 2010-2019 — but saying you’re going to freeze spending is easy. The hard part is figuring out what to cut. There’s also a limit to the growth of Medicare payments — but saying you’re going to limit growth is easy. The hard part is figuring out how to limit growth and deciding what you’re going to cut to meet your caps. Medicaid is treated the same way: Ryan’s plan simply sets a limit on growth rates without saying how those limits will be met.

That’s no doubt because Paul Ryan isn’t especially serious about public policy details, and his reputation as one of the less ridiculous members of the Republican caucus is the result a) of exaggerated hype; and b) advantageous comparisons to his even-dimmer colleagues.

But I’m at least glad to have Ryan’s plan on paper so it can be presented to voters in November as “what Republicans would do if they were in power.”