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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Conservatives are right to be skeptical of Ryan-Murray budget deal

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Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein,Paul Ryan,Budgets and Deficits,Government Shutdown,Sequester

During the intra-conservative movement fight over whether to allow the the government to shut down in an effort to force President Obama to defund his health care law, I argued that the disagreements on the right were more tactical than substantive.

But the disagreements over the proposed deal struck between House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis, and Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., are in fact substantive, and conservatives who have voiced concerns are right to be skeptical.

Let’s not exaggerate. The deal is not some massive capitulation by Republicans and does not represent the creation of a major new government program along the lines of the Medicare prescription drug program.

In dollar terms, the deal is rather modest in comparison to the size of the federal budget. In 2014 and 2015, it would ease the automatic sequestration spending cuts on defense and non-defense programs, thus effectively boosting spending by $63 billion.

To offset the increased spending, the deal includes a series of small-bore reforms aimed at reducing “waste, fraud and abuse” and reforming pension payments. It also extends sequestration on the mandatory side of the budget down the road. (More on that below.)

The deal does not extend unemployment insurance and does not increase tax rates. Though it does increase airline security fees.

All told, Ryan claims the budget contains $85 billion in offsetting savings, meaning it reduces deficits by around $23 billion on paper. But the “on paper” part is where conservatives’ skepticism is warranted.

The actual numbers of the deal are less significant than the fact that the deal is undermining sequestration, which had been touted as Republicans’ biggest success in limiting government spending since gaining control of the House in 2010.

If, in response to pressure from defense industry lobbyists and other special interest groups, Republicans and Democrats have agreed to undo sequestration for the next two years, why should conservatives be confident that they won't do the same thing two years from now?

Furthermore, a summary of the deal published by the House Budget Committee says it, "saves $28 billion over ten years by requiring the President to sequester the same percentage of mandatory budgetary resources in 2022 and 2023 as will be sequestered in 2021 under current law. “

But given that Ryan and Murray are agreeing to scrap spending levels set by an agreement they both voted for just over two years ago, why should conservatives trust that a decade from now, a future president will be bound by this current agreement?

Thus, the agreement marks a return toward business as usual in Washington that the Tea Party movement was supposed to change. It represents a step back to the age-old practice in which Congress routinely unravels its own budget agreements when it comes time to actually make the cuts.

That having been said, there’s no doubt that the failed shutdown strategy helped marginalize conservatives, making it much more likely that congressional Republicans will grasp on to this deal to avert a repeat of the October fiasco.

The fact that conservatives now have reduced leverage to oppose this budget agreement is the type of consequence I feared when I disagreed with the tactics of the doomed effort to make the funding of the government contingent on getting Obama to agree to defund Obamacare.

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Philip Klein

Commentary Editor
The Washington Examiner