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Ryan's way: Give citizens their choice

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February 05, 2011 | comments

by Patrick McIlheran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Paul Ryan was back in Wisconsin last week, sledding with his kids on a snow-day Wednesday, foretelling strife to journalists on Thursday. Not that he's looking for a fight, he says.

Nobody wants a government shutdown, said the Janesville Republican who now heads the House Budget Committee. He figures my profession will play up the possibility of a shutdown as divided Washington gives birth to a budget. That labor is just beginning.

One key upcoming moment is March 4, when the stopgap that now governs federal spending - the "continuing resolution" - expires. Congress will have to pass, and President Barack Obama sign, another continuing resolution to keep the lights on for the seven months left in this fiscal year. Mapping out that resolution, Ryan last week proposed cuts deep enough that Washington would spend $74 billion less from now to October than what Obama proposed. We're spending far more than the nation can afford, he said, and the spree must end.

The Democrats' leaders called this "draconian." Some Republicans said it wasn't enough. In any event, it's about 2% of federal spending. If there's the danger of a government shutdown, a disruption that Democrats would try to blame on Republicans, it's in this wrangling over the continuing resolution.

Ryan said he'd keep his party from being painted as bad guys by pointing out that the cuts simply return us to pre-stimulus but still-towering 2008 spending. He points to his charts of projected spending as a share of the nation's wealth - an even green line that he proposes vs. the soaring red mountain slope that we're now heading up. That way lies disaster.

That tense March moment, and others in spring and summer as Congress and the president hash out next year's budget, are all a small part of a much bigger debate over the majority of federal spending that is on autopilot - entitlements. These unsustainable promises in Medicare, Social Security and, now, Obamacare either get fixed before the baby boom retires or their collapse will strand beneficiaries and ruin future taxpayers.

Take Obamacare: Even now, its numbers don't work, Ryan said, once you stop double-counting savings and undercounting costs. It presumes 19 million people will be dumped into subsidized government "exchanges," but since its rules raise the cost of insurance for employers and set low penalties for dropping coverage, it's clear far more people will be dumped. Federal spending will "explode," said Ryan.

In his 2010 book "Never Enough," William Voegeli pointed out the grim fact that America's welfare state - not aid for the poor but entitlements handed out broadly - has grown without cease. Under Democrats or Republicans, only the rate of government's growth has varied, not the fact of growth. Ronald Reagan's triumph, Voegeli writes, "was to yield ground more slowly" as the state appropriated ever more of everyone's output.

What makes Ryan think we can make that critical turn now? In part, timing. We're out of time. Social Security just started paying out more than it takes in. "We're now cashing in IOUs with borrowed dollars," he said, and an America that retains a majority, if scant, in favor of self-reliance over dependence might now be willing to look at changes.

The question isn't just $74 billion in cuts this year but whether we'll let unceasingly larger entitlements eat us for fear of trying any kind of reform. This sounds stark, Ryan admits, but the debt projections justify that. "We've come to a tipping point," a referendum moment between what he calls the "opportunity society" and a dependency state. It's time to call the question to voters.

"I think we'll win that referendum if we go now," he said, before passing years hook ever more people on federal checks.

I'd think he's wildly optimistic except for this: Ryan's been saying this for several years. In 2008, his party repudiated, Ryan said the way back was for Republicans to be clearly conservative, to tell the country, "Choose this or that" and rely on Americans' good sense. Republicans in 2010 did so, and they won. Perhaps Ryan's onto something.

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist.


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