Ryan Budget Aims to Help a Nation of Government Addicts Recover

I’m glad Republicans, led by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), are having “an adult discussion” with the American people about the kind of sacrifices needed to avert economic collapse.  We are a nation of adults who appreciate candor and boldness from our elected representatives.

But we are also a nation of addicts hooked on government largesse.  Breaking our deep dependence on government will take patience and perseverance.

To a nation of government addicts, Rep. Ryan has taken on the role of addiction interventionist.  His budget is rooted in a sobering reality: that without fundamental change, America faces “economic collapse.”

It would slash federal spending by $6.2 trillion over 10 years, cutting the federal budget deficit from 9% of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 1.6% by 2021.  It would freeze government spending at 2008 levels, end corporate welfare, and reform the tax code and health care. 

Ryan’s is the first legislative attempt to address the major source of our long-term fiscal imbalance: entitlements.  Ryan doesn’t tackle Social Security, but he does propose fundamental reforms of Medicaid and Medicare.

Any former addict will tell you that the first step to recovery is to admit that there’s a problem.  But many Democrats won’t even do that, and are blasting Ryan for his bold proposal.  In unveiling his budget plan, Ryan himself acknowledged that he was handing the Democrats a “political weapon.”

And they’ve been firing that weapon with typical abandon.  House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) claimed that the Ryan budget would “deprive seniors of meals” and amounted to a “war on women.”

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the new head of the Democrat National Committee, said Ryan’s plan was a “death trap for seniors.”

Another liberal critic claimed that the proposed budget cuts amount to a “repeal [of] the 20th century.”

I support Ryan’s goal and admire his courage.  But let’s not forget just how many Americans benefit from some form of government assistance, and therefore how many Americans we can expect to resist budget cuts.

Call it government mission creep.  Over the last century, government has taken over large segments of the economy that the Founders never intended.  Economist Gary Shilling estimates that 58% of Americans are dependent on the government for “major parts of their income.”  These include scores of millions of teachers, bureaucrats, entitlement recipients, government contractors, those who live in public housing, and much more.  Shilling predicts that the share of Americans highly dependent on government will grow to 67% by 2018.

Polls show most Americans understand that government spending has gotten out of control.  A recent poll found that most Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling.

But other polls find that most Americans don’t want cuts to the programs they benefit from.  The most recent Gallup poll shows that two-thirds of Americans oppose cutting Social Security benefits, and that a clear majority is against cutting Medicare.

I have heard from a lot of conservatives frustrated over what they consider Republican unwillingness to make substantial budget cuts.  Their impatience is understandable.  The last time Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, they did not win high marks for budget responsibility.

But congressional Republicans are in a difficult position as they attempt to balance fiscal and political realities.  They know that it will be difficult to energize the Tea Party and other conservatives unless the party embraces the types of cuts Ryan has proposed.

But it is also clear that Democrats and their media allies will portray bold action as an attack on the American people and scare the electorate into believing that the programs they have relied on will not be there for them.  It is easy to see a scenario in which a demonized Republican Party loses not only the White House and Senate, but the House too.  These losses would make future budget cuts unlikely.

Wisconsin provides a cautionary tale.  Gov. Scott Walker acted on his election mandate in reforming the lavish benefits that public employees receive.  It was a righteous and courageous thing to do.

How did union employees and Democratic officials react?  Like addicts whose drug supplies had just been cut off.  In the wake of Walker’s reform proposals, Walker and Republicans in the state legislature were attacked in the media with uncommon vitriol and hatred.  Violent union-organized mobs besieged the state capitol building in Madison.  A Republican state senator was even attacked.

Gov. Walker won the legislative battle, but his approval ratings have plummeted as a result, as have the GOP’s approval ratings state-wide.  President Obama has seen his approval ratings soar in Wisconsin .

Conservatives need to be patient with the Republican leadership as it tries to balance budget and political realities.  It takes time to beat addiction.  Trust needs to be restored, and new behaviors need to emerge.  For the country to get on what Ryan calls “The Path to Prosperity,” it will also have to commit to “The Road to Recovery.”