Shutdown endgame: focused argument or "grand bargain?"

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Budget Committee and 2012 vice-presidential candidate, has a Wall Street Journal op-ed proposing a resolution for the shutdown drama.  Every analyst and pundit reading this piece immediately noticed that the phrases “ObamaCare” and “Affordable Care Act” appear nowhere within it, even though ObamaCare’s launch, and spectacular failure, were the events that precipitated the crisis.

Rep. Ryan wastes no time tying the shutdown and impending debt-ceiling collision into a single discussion, within the first two sentences of his opening paragraph:

The president is giving Congress the silent treatment. He’s refusing to talk, even though the federal government is about to hit the debt ceiling. That’s a shame???because this doesn’t have to be another crisis. It could be a breakthrough. We have an opportunity here to pay down the national debt and jump-start the economy, if we start talking, and talking specifics, now. To break the deadlock, both sides should agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.

First, let’s clear something up. The president says he “will not negotiate” on the debt ceiling. He claims that such negotiations would be unprecedented. But many presidents have negotiated on the debt ceiling???including him. In 1985, Ronald Reagan signed a debt-ceiling deal with congressional Democrats that set deficit caps. In 1997, Bill Clinton hammered out an agreement with congressional Republicans to raise the debt ceiling, reform Medicare and cut capital-gains taxes. Two years ago, Mr. Obama signed the Budget Control Act, which swapped spending cuts for a debt-ceiling hike.

Fair enough, and an accurate history lesson on the subject of presidential compromise with Congress, but the shutdown doesn’t have anything to do with the debt ceiling.  Not yet, anyway.  It began because the Republicans didn’t want to pass an emergency spending resolution that would pour more taxpayer money into the ObamaCare disaster.

Well, hang on a second, let me take the long view, as Ryan does, and set the Wayback Machine a bit further into the past.  The shutdown’s genesis lies in the uncomfortable fact that President Obama and Senate Democrats have been violating federal law for over four years, by refusing to pass a budget.  Since we don’t have budgets any more, the government is funded by a rolling avalanche of “emergency spending resolutions,” which do nothing to resolve a fiscal “emergency” that will never end.  That’s how we roll in maximum-power, minimum-responsibility statist America.

Nobody in Washington seems terribly interested in enforcing any of the “settled laws of the land” that govern the budget process.  They just keep yammering about ObamaCare being the “settled law of the land,” the very first one in our nation’s history that cannot be repealed, delayed, or altered by the legislature, although the President can modify or disregard it at will.  The “power of the purse” granted to the House is now just another quaint artifact of the Constitutional era.  Their only job is to hold the purse open, while the Senate and White House take what they want.  In fact, they’re happy to help themselves to thirty or forty percent more money than the purse actually contains, which means the purse is like the TARDIS on “Doctor Who.”

It’s all very complicated, and utterly daft, but perhaps the Democrats did us a favor by halting the practice of stealing the language of responsibility when they stopped pretending it was a “budget.”  Perhaps they’ll also do us a solid by dropping the phrase “debt ceiling” to describe the entirely ceremonial process of raising the limit on Uncle Sam’s credit cards – a ceremony President Obama tells us should be observed in dignified silence, without a word of argument, like rolling past the occasional graveyard as we drive down the highway to insolvency.

For the moment, we still indulge the public’s fading appetite for responsible, accountable government by acting as if we’re about to smash through some sort of “debt ceiling” unless we take some dramatic action, and since that’s going to happen soon, it’s not surprising that Ryan might want to fold the ObamaCare debate into a larger debt discussion.  ObamaCare will be the engine that blasts our Willy Wonka elevator of public debt through the next few glass ceilings, after all.  Those people recoiling in sticker shock from their ObamaCare premiums and sky-high deductibles?  They’re the next great welfare constituency, and there will be a lot more of them, as small businesses continue dumping hapless employees into level 404 of the public-exchange inferno.

It’s not just small businesses, either.  President Obama’s hometown of Chicago is considering that fate for its part-time employees.  However much public money ObamaCare is blowing right now, you haven’t seen the half of it yet, and I mean that fairly literally.

So it’s a bit odd that Rep. Ryan doesn’t talk about the ObamaCare deficit rocket warming up on the launch pad, given that it’s the express reason our shutdown drama began.  Funny thing: the media didn’t ask President Obama a single question about it either, even though ObamaCare’s craptacular first week is one of the biggest stories in the country, and they probably won’t be given another chance to ask the President about it during the remainder of the fiscal crisis, or maybe even for the rest of this year.

Is that going to alienate the public, some quarters of which are deeply concerned about ObamaCare, and prefer focused arguments over politicians’ habit of changing the subject in mid-debate?  Or is this a good moment to make a “grand bargain,” seeing as how our insolvent government had big problems long before the Affordable Care Act came along?  Ryan begins by essentially trying to re-fight the Budget Control Act battle from 2011, which you may notice resulted in absolutely zero “budget control” aside from the sequester, which is another “settled law of the land” Democrats would like to disregard.  They’ve occasionally presented obedience to this law as some sort of compromise, a bargaining chip tossed on the table in exchange for further concessions from Republicans.

Ryan, who understands fiscal doomsday better than just about anyone else in Washington, lays out the entitlement numbers in his article:

If Mr. Obama decides to talk, he’ll find that we actually agree on some things. For example, most of us agree that gradual, structural reforms are better than sudden, arbitrary cuts. For my Democratic colleagues, the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act are a major concern. And the truth is, there’s a better way to cut spending. We could provide relief from the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act in exchange for structural reforms to entitlement programs.

These reforms are vital. Over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office predicts discretionary spending???that is, everything except entitlement programs and debt payments???will grow by $202 billion, or roughly 17%. Meanwhile, mandatory spending???which mostly consists of funding for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security???will grow by $1.6 trillion, or roughly 79%. The 2011 Budget Control Act largely ignored entitlement spending. But that is the nation’s biggest challenge.

And he’s got specific proposals to deal with this challenge, including the transformation of Medicare into an outright wealth-distribution scheme (rich people pay more and get less), asking “federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement” (good luck getting that past the unions!), Medicare streamlining, “opening up America’s vast energy reserves” to stimulate growth (something Obama’s green constituency will never permit), and a general notion of reforming the tax system to “broaden the base, lower the rates, and simplify the code.”

Some of those ideas are quite sound, although I hope Rep. Ryan can forgive my curbed enthusiasm for a tax reform package co-authored by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) – the guy who saddled us with ObamaCare, warned it would be a “train wreck,” and then announced his retirement.  I don’t know what sort of meaningful government reform we can expect, unless we reform the political class first, and that’s going to take the kind of high-voltage shock treatment that ObamaCare repeal would deliver.

Ryan graciously describes increased economic growth as “another goal both parties share.”  Really?  President Obama doesn’t seem to care about it at all, although twenty times now he has loudly announced it had become his top priority and he would “pivot” to job creation.  And the people Rep. Ryan is saluting as dear colleagues interested in what’s best for America are busy describing his party as a gang of terrorists, while they deliberately inflict pain on the American people to ensure the survival of a ludicrous health-care scheme that has already destroyed thousands of full-time jobs, severely retarding business expansion.  And while Ryan relates Congressional Budget Office estimates that “stable or declining levels of federal debt would help the economy” and leave the federal government with more money to address concerns beyond debt service, I don’t hear any Democrats talking that way at all.  The only time they mention the national debt, ever, is when they’re demanding tax increases.

Ryan says he’s not looking for a “grand bargain,” which he describes as “a complete rethinking of government’s approach to helping the most vulnerable, and a complete rethinking of government’s approach to health care.”  How about a complete rethinking of government’s approach to the people who pay for all that, by exercising the liberty granted in our Constitution to pursue opportunity and create wealth?  That’s a tall order, to be sure… but the Republicans never seem to get very far with short orders.  Democrats, on the other hand, always bid high and define “compromise” as meeting 80 or 90 percent of their demands.

“The Federal Reserve won’t keep interest rates low forever,” Ryan warns.  “The demographic crunch will only get worse. So once interest rates rise, borrowing costs will spike.  If we miss this moment, the debt will spiral out of control.”  He’s right about that, and he’s definitely one of the people Americans want at the table when the sort of “budget agreement” he calls for is hammered out.  But don’t we need to agree to have “budgets” again first?  And what happened to giving all Americans the same sort of waiver President Obama granted to business interests when he illegally delayed the employer mandate?  Will the Republicans obligingly sweep all that off the negotiating table before Democrats take their seats?  If so, we’re back to short-order fiscal cooking again.

Update: More thoughts on Ryan’s op-ed from Erick Erickson at RedState: “The only path to victory in this shutdown is to keep our fire on Obamacare and our focus on the defunding effort. We can still undermine Obamacare, but we need to resist the attempt to merge this with the debt limit and hold the line on the continuing resolution. Otherwise we will lose on both.”