Representative Paul Ryan’s 40th birthday coincided with the House GOP retreat in Baltimore on January 29. Ryan’s wife and three children joined him for the event. President Obama was also there, at the invitation of the House Republican leadership, to deliver remarks and answer questions from selected members. And he had a surprise in store for the six-term Wisconsin Republican: a spur-of-the-moment, presidential-level debate over the federal budget.
Hmm, Ryan thought. This is interesting. The two engaged in a back-and-forth over the president’s increase in discretionary spending during fiscal year 2010. Later, Obama said that Ryan, the ranking member of the House Budget and Ways & Means Committees, is “a pretty sincere guy” with “a beautiful family.” Later still, the two went at it once more, this time over the politics of Medicare. “I want to make sure that I’m not being unfair to your proposal,” Obama said.
He was talking about Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” an ambitious plan to overhaul the welfare state and pay off the national debt (you can read the 95-page document at www.americanroadmap.org). For Americans under 55, the Roadmap would fundamentally restructure Medicare and Medicaid through means-tested vouchers, while introducing opt-in personal accounts to Social Security. It would replace the corporate income tax with a business consumption tax; repeal the Alternative Minimum, dividend, capital gains, and estate taxes; and reduce the six current tax brackets to two—one at 10 percent, the other at 25 percent. And that’s not all. Other parts of the plan include job training programs, budgetary reforms, and a free-market health care proposal modeled on Ryan’s Patients Choice Act. “This works,” Ryan told me last week. “It solves our fiscal crisis. It turns it around.” The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office agrees with him.
No question, the Roadmap is a big idea. But it isn’t a new one. Ryan initially released the proposal in 2008, when it fell flat. “First they laughed at us, then they ignored us,” says Representative Devin Nunes of California, a Ryan ally.
What’s changed? America has fallen into a vat of red ink. The financial crisis and recession have darkened the country’s long-term fiscal outlook. Unemployment stands at 9.7 percent. The president’s fiscal year 2011 budget forecasts record deficits and debt long into the future. Inflation, punishing interest rates, high taxes, and economic stagnation are not far behind. Hence the Democrats, who can’t defend their own budgets, desperately want to change the subject. They’ve found one they like: what’s wrong with Ryan’s Roadmap.