The Real Problem with the Ryan Budget

I recently looked at Paul Ryan’s FY 2013 budget rollout. Unlike those who emphasize the budget’s conservative slant, my sense is that the key thing this year (as last) is how sketchy the whole thing is. With some justification: it ain’t going anywhere, so why spell out painful cuts and tax trade-offs?

All of which I mostly don’t blame Ryan for. He has his own set of incentives to work with. But I do blame any reporter who reports this as a serious budget. The thing that I find annoying? Ryan repeatedly in his charts credits CBO as his source, but as CBO says — and Ezra Klein writes — CBO was merely echoing back what Ryan told them to say.

Let me explain that a bit. The reason CBO scoring (or, the Joint Tax Committee for taxes) is important is because it’s very difficult to know actual, real effects of changes in tax and spending programs. So you come up with a plan — say, the Buffett Rule that the very rich should pay at least as much as other people. Okay, that’s a nice idea, but then you have to turn it into some sort of specific proposal. You need to define your terms, figure out a mechanism, and spell it all out (eventually) in legislative language that’s drafted carefully to achieve what you want to achieve. Then, after you’ve done that, you can start getting estimates for the effects on revenues.

But Ryan doesn’t do that. What he does is to tell CBO what his estimate is for a program he hasn’t written yet. None of it — corporate tax reform, individual tax reform, the Medicare plan — is well enough developed to get realistic estimates. So he’s just making up his own conclusions, and telling CBO to run the deficit estimates with those numbers. It’s not necessarily a completely phony exercise: Ryan could, when the actual program changes are ready, design them and modify them in order to hit his pre-chosen targets. However, the CBO certification that he’s claiming is entirely phony. No one, no one, should buy the idea that Ryan’s budget has been scored by CBO. Absolutely not.

Of course, budgeting is a lot easier when you can just make up numbers and pretend that your program changes, which you haven’t actually figured out yet, will yield those numbers.

Unless, that is, you actually believe in budgeting. But we all know that Paul Ryan and the other Republicans don’t. And therefore, the truth is that we have absolutely no idea what the effects would be of adoption and implementation of Ryan’s budget. Maybe it would really slash the deficit; maybe it would increase it. There’s no way anyone could, including Paul Ryan, could guess the answer from the information we’ve been given.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.