Michael Gerson: The boilerplate gap

BY MICHAEL GERSON Published: March 16, 2013
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It would be a mistake to confuse a budget proposal for a proposed budget, though they bear a superficial resemblance. A budget proposal — of the type that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have recently announced — represents the internal agreement reached by a party caucus and the starting point of a high-stakes political negotiation. If a Republican or Democratic budget expert were to craft an actual proposed budget, it would look very different.

Ryan's budget proposal is similar to his previous two in both strengths and failures. It deserves everlasting fiduciary fame for proposing a plausible Medicare reform plan, essential to the future of the program and the long-term stability of the federal budget.

And yet … the refusal to consider additional revenues and the delayed implementation of proposed Medicare reform result in impossible reductions in Medicaid and discretionary spending. These elements of the budget proposal summarize the ideological predispositions of House Republicans rather than address objective economic needs, humanitarian requirements, or even GOP political imperatives.

Congressional Democrats, in turn, have emerged from nearly four years of budgetary silence with their own ideological caricature — a proposal combining heavy taxes, budgetary gimmicks, a net increase in spending and a strident refusal to consider meaningful entitlement reform. The silence was more responsible.

Neither budget proposal is worth criticizing in too much detail. How do you chemically analyze a gesture? But the broad contrast in approaches is instructive. The Republican argument: Given demographic and fiscal trends, if you want to provide income and health insurance support to the elderly and poor, and preserve a meaningful American role in the world, government will need to become less of an all-purpose service provider and to refocus key programs, such as Medicare, on helping those in the greatest need. The Democratic argument: We can do it all — as long as you don't look beyond the 10-year budget window.

Republicans get the better of this disagreement. But the tensions within the Ryan budget proposal are also revealing. Assuming the process went normally, Ryan and his team wrote the language of the budget document, which isn't voted on, while the leadership and relevant committee members had to agree on the substance — the budget tables that members actually approve. In some areas, this produced a strange disconnect between aspiration and policy.