Chicago Tribune editorial: What real leaders do
Tuesday brought a welcome blast of truth-telling among the grown-ups on Capitol Hill. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled a politically risky proposal to curb federal deficits and pay down the national debt. As he and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, correctly stated, America has a moral obligation to stop spending like there's no tomorrow.
In part because there is a tomorrow. This nation needs to be strong to face it and thrive.
Has Ryan got all the answers? No, but his plan sure beats doing nothing. And nothing is mostly what we've heard from Democrats evidently more concerned about winning next year's presidential and congressional election than leveling with Americans about the perils of a federal debt north of $14 trillion.
Ryan and his Republican allies are taking a big chance by targeting the current version of the federal government's popular Medicare health insurance program. Ryan envisions a voucher system that would provide subsidies for seniors to obtain private insurance on their own. He also wants individual states to shoulder the burden of cost-containment in the federal Medicaid program for the poor.
Like any thinking resident of this state, we're worried that Illinois would botch its responsibilities, but that's no reason to reject Ryan's plan out of hand. We can't afford the plan we've got. We need free-market checks and balances, and think-big ideas for saving a program that has grown to serve one in five Illinoisans.
If not the Ryan plan, Democrats, then what?
It was a shame to hear influential lawmakers such as Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attack Ryan practically before he had finished talking. As Ryan acknowledged Tuesday, his "Path to Prosperity" hands a potent weapon to his political opponents, who may indeed follow the usual playbook by fanning the fears of seniors, and demonizing the GOP as the enemy of America's most vulnerable citizens.
Depressingly, public opinion polls show that most Americans want Congress to cut the federal deficit without cutting entitlements. That isn't feasible: In round numbers, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security totaled $1.5 trillion in a fiscal 2010 federal budget of $3.5 trillion.
Unchecked, our current entitlement system will destroy our fiscal future. Other developed countries — including several in Europe that now are choking on their own vast public debts — have launched austerity programs. America instead has boosted spending. It can't go on like this, and Ryan's proposal includes a sobering account titled, "How a Debt Crisis Would Unfold."
Trust us: It ends badly.
Ryan is warning us about perils that stretch from economics to psychology: The sense of victimization among citizens who object to reforming unaffordable entitlements — and the unwillingness of President Obama and other leaders to challenge that self-indulgence — represents a much greater threat to Americans than anything in Ryan's proposal.
That said, it's easy to see why Democrats don't like the Ryan budget plan. It's no "path to poverty" for everyday Americans, as Pelosi suggested. But it is a conservative Republican wish list, cutting most deeply where Democrats would least want to cut. It goes easy on defense, while repealing last year's landmark health-care legislation. Ryan's version of tax reform mostly involves tax relief. And for no good reason he sidesteps Social Security: He probably figured that taking on Medicare and Medicaid would generate enough political heat for one day.
All things considered, the plan hatched several months ago by Obama's bipartisan deficit commission addresses the same issues in a different fashion. Its version of tax reform, fair-minded and savvy about revenues, has much to recommend it. In other words, the deficit commission's plan might prove more politically palatable in Washington — if Washington ever gets serious. Ryan's plan, though, is more ambitious.
With any luck, Americans in time will react to Tuesday's proposal the way a nation of adults should. We hope Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and other lawmakers who now understand the dangers of so much federal debt will get deficit-cutting negotiations back on track. Last we heard, Durbin was among a "Gang of Six" lawmakers hammering out a deal. So where is it?
Paul Ryan and his allies aren't waiting for a perfect moment that, in Washington, never comes. On Tuesday, they did what real leaders do. They risked their necks.