Are Republicans Insane Enough To Propose a Balanced Budget?

Bill Scher

Winning the Congress has mainly given Republican a bushelful of problems, and a big one is right around the corner: How are they ever going to pass a budget?

For years, the Republican House mocked the Senate Democrats for failing to pass a budget. It was an overblown charge: the budget is merely a nonbinding resolution for guidance purposes, not the actual “appropriations” laws that disperse taxpayer funds to government agencies. But Republicans made passing a budget a benchmark of governance; now they will have to oblige.

That means getting the House and Senate to agree, and House Republicans have been obsessed with balancing the budget in 10 years. Which is insane.

Even one of Washington’s biggest deficit hawks, Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, tried to get Republicans to back down from any 10-year commitment, as it would require $5.5 trillion in deficit reduction by people who don’t believe in tax increases or military spending cuts. “Just to put that in perspective, that’s eight times the size of the fiscal cliff deal and it’s 65 times the size of the Ryan-Murray deal which you recall we didn’t stick to for very long,” she told the Senate Budget Committee this week.

That’s the politics. In terms of pain to people, consider that by the final year of any such plan, with no tax increases or military cuts, social spending would have to be slashed in half.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) knew that was truly insane, or at least, he once did. His initial proposals as House Budget Committee chair zeroed out deficits after 30 years. But tea-party pressure got to him and he later shifted to the 10-year standard.

How did he get there? He just eliminated all of the health insurance subsidies for low-income workers under Obamacare … while keeping all of Obamacare’s tax increases and health care savings, and offering no replacement. That alone covered more than $2 trillion.

But it also beyond insane to break Obamacare in two pieces and junk the part that helps people pay for coverage, more so now that so many Americans are receiving these subsidies. Ryan surely knew this, but was forced to appease his party’s know-nothings. Besides, last year’s budget was never going to be considered by the Democratic Senate, and few we’re going to scrutinize the details, so who cares how unrealistic it was?

This year is different.

For one thing, the 10-year cost estimate for the Obamacare subsidies has been revised downward to $1.2 trillion. So using partial repeal as an accounting gimmick doesn’t yield as much savings.

More importantly, with Republicans in full control of Congress, an adopted budget resolution will be akin to a party platform. Senate Republicans, who have to appeal to more diverse constituencies than House Republicans, several of whom must run for re-election next year in blue states, won’t be able to gloss over the particulars of what happens when you take a sledgehammer to school lunches, veterans benefits, child care tax credits, unemployment insurance and everything else that our government does for working people and the poor.

Sanity may well prevail in the Republican leadership. Politico reports, “all indications are the savings target for reconciliation” in the plans to be unveiled by the House and Senate budget committees “won’t come close to the trillions needed to reach balance by 2025.” But pulling back from that target, so soon after Ryan was pressured into embracing it, could easily lead to another tea party rebellion, another case of Republican dysfunction.

Such a train wreck wouldn’t cause harm to the public – no worries of government shutdown or debt defaults, at least not until the fall – only to the Republican Party goal of being seen by the public as a party prepared to govern like adults.

Get updates in your inbox