House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said before he introduced the GOP's 2012 budget that he knew he was "walking into a political buzz saw." Sure enough, when he announced the budget April 5 which cuts $6 trillion from President Obama's budget for the next decade, including Medicare and Medicaid, Democrats said he was destroying the nation's safety net, attacking the poor and the elderly. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who was just tapped to lead the Democratic National Committee, said Ryan's proposal "passes like a tornado through seniors' nursing homes." Some conservatives, too, criticized his plan for barely shaving defense spending.
Washington is attacking the specifics of Ryan's plan, but it was almost universally acknowledged in the press that Ryan is the only one so far offering specifics for addressing the nation's debt crisis. The president said he strongly disagreed with Ryan's budget, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney added, "The president believes there is a more balanced way to put America on a path to prosperity."
"What would that path be, Mr. President?" asked The Washington Post editorial board.
In the debate over the budget for the rest of fiscal 2011, too, Democrats have sought to hang the failure to pass a budget and avert a looming government shutdown around Republicans' necks, though this is the budget that they were supposed to have finished last year when they controlled Congress. Their inaction could make Republicans the serious party when it comes to the budget, regardless of a shutdown, and Ryan is taking pains to point out that his party is the true protector of the nation's safety net by bringing fiscal viability to those programs.
"The social safety net is tearing apart at the seams," he has said. "We repair our social safety nets."
"What Paul is arguing is both true and brilliant," said Henry Olsen, the vice president of the American Enterprise Institute. By offering a long-term plan for solving entitlements, Olsen said, Ryan is telling voters, "We're the safe choice . . . we're going to give you true stability." And he said Ryan is telling Democrats, "Your plan puts people more at risk than ours does."
Ryan's plan doesn't address Social Security, but it turns Medicare into a voucher program to buy private insurance for those under 55 when they enter the program. Current seniors won't see their benefits slashed. He proposes that the federal government send Medicaid funds to states in block grants instead of funding based on the number of cases, which would give states more incentive to use funds efficiently. Some governors complain that this would increase their share of funding. But this was the approach of the 1996 welfare reforms, providing block grants instead of blanket funding in order to remove perverse incentives to raise spending. Ryan listed the Medicaid changes in the budget under "welfare reform."
The Ryan budget incorporates welfare reform proposals from Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who leads the Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of the party, proposals that are designed to "build on the reforms of 1996." Jordan has introduced his own legislation capping welfare spending once unemployment returns to the pre-recession level of 6.5 percent and tying benefits more tightly to work requirements. Federal and state welfare spending is the largest category of government spending, exceeded only by the combined spending of Social Security and Medicare, according to Robert Rector, welfare expert at the Heritage Foundation. Welfare spending is greater than defense, he said, and has been the fastest-growing portion of government spending over the last two decades.
Democrats "either have to move toward Republican policies or they have to move toward tax increases," Olsen said.