The conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C. Tuesday was clear: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s FY 2012 budget plan is political suicide for anyone who endorses it. But is that really the case?
In the 1980s, Republicans in the Senate devised a budget plan under the Senate Budget Committee chairmanship of Sen. Pete Domenici. I was staff director of the committee at that time. In a dramatic late night vote, then-Sen. Pete Wilson of California was wheeled onto the Senate floor in a gurney (he’d had an emergency appendectomy earlier in the day) and cast the vote that passed a budget plan that had a minor change in Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) in Social Security.
Eventually, President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill conspired to undo the deal, leaving Senate Republicans alone and unprotected politically. And, in the 1986 elections, all but one of the incumbent Republican Senators up for re-election lost. The Senate went Democratic.
Since then, entitlements and Social Security in particular have been considered political C4 — dangerous to even think about touching.
This time though is different.
Look at Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Chris Christie in New Jersey, governors who have soared in public approval while vigorously attacking state deficits and spending.
Republicans have a choice–be cowed by the attacks already underway from the Democratic Senate and Congressional Campaign Committees; or, forge forward unabashed. If they choose the former, they’ll suffer at the polls in 2012 as their 2010 supporters realize that the new bunch is just like the old bunch. If they choose the latter course–call it the Daniels-Christie way–and attack entitlement spending without apology, their courage may well be rewarded by independents and the GOP base.
Disdain for Congress usually revolves around the phrase, “They don’t have any guts.”
What if Congressional Republicans joined Paul Ryan and showed some guts?
So far, the GOP has wasted lots of political capital fighting about a trivial amount of money in the Continuing Resolution for FY11. Now, Ryan has opened a new front in the fiscal war–the FY12 budget and beyond. Fighting on that front could really make a difference in what are now projected to be truly dangerous debt levels.
It’s instructive to remember that when Ryan first developed a version of his plan (back when the GOP was in the minority) almost none of his colleagues endorsed it. Will his present colleagues rally to his cause or head for the hills?
I recall an incident several years ago when then-Sen. Domenici upbraided one of his GOP colleagues. The colleague had become a great voice against deficits and government spending. But, his target had almost always been the domestic appropriations bills, which comprise about 16 per cent of federal spending.
“Why don’t you get serious about this,” Domenici asked.
“What do you mean. I am serious,” his colleague responded.
“No. I will know you are really serious when you begin to join the fight against entitlements, the real fiscal problem,” Domenici said, “instead of these little $4 and $5 million items.”
And that’s how it is today. If the GOP simply made a deal on the CR for FY11 (at almost any level slightly more than the president offered) and then joined enthusiastically with Paul Ryan in the real war, then we would know that they are truly “serious.”
Many of the new members of the House Republican caucus have said that they aren’t career politicians — that they will vote for real change “even if it means I won’t get re-elected.”
Paul Ryan has given them a chance to back up those brave words. Let’s see how many Republicans in the House are willing to vote with Ryan to get his plan out of committee and then to pass it on the House floor.
I suspect the reward for that kind of guts will be a good chance at re-election in 2012.
But, that’s not the wisdom of the moment in the nation’s capital.
Of course, that’s the same wisdom that said Reagan could never win the Presidency, Clinton would never win re-election, and, questioned why Obama would bother running against Hillary.