Paul Ryan Starts Off on Wrong Foot With Budget Deal

Grass-roots conservatives have many unrealistic expectations and political objectives. And then sometimes they have a good point.

The new budget deal arranged by John Boehner and Democrats — approving $50 billion of additional spending in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017 — will be split between domestic discretionary programs and defense. Cuts will supposedly take effect in 2025, by which time this deal is likely to be buried under a dozen budget debates and a trillion dollars of bad memories for fiscal conservatives.

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We’re told the reason for GOP capitulation is that Boehner, acting selflessly, is about to “clean out the barn” for a Paul Ryan speakership. Implicit in this argument is the idea that this kind of budget agreement would normally be a no-brainer but the crazies must be appeased. Passing it now and avoiding the heat will allow Ryan to move forward with his own agenda. If only it were that simple.

For one thing, the GOP will have to live with the precedent set by the terrible deal in future negotiations. Barack Obama, as The New York Times points out, is now going to be able to “break free of the spending shackles” of the imaginary reign of austerity that was brought on by the Budget Control Act of 2011. So are all Democrats.

For another thing, conservatives will almost surely see this as a betrayal. The administration came up with the idea of sequestration, and it turned out to be the only tangible victory Republicans could claim on spending.

You may remember the 2010 Pledge to America, in which congressional Republicans promised to roll back government spending to pre-stimulus/bailout levels, cutting at least $100 billion in the first year after taking power. They failed to achieve that improbable goal. And almost every year since, government spending has gone up, though the GOP keeps adding seats by promising to achieve the opposite.

Expecting the GOP to return Washington to 2008 spending levels — now, with a Democratic president in power, or probably ever — is unrealistic. Expecting Republicans at the very least not to piddle away the only leverage they have to keep the status quo is surely reasonable.

If the GOP is unable to extract concessions that mitigate future spending and debt, then the debt ceiling has no real political purpose for Republicans. In fact, if Republicans can’t even hold the line on what they’ve gained — and at this point, Boehner is actually giving back items Republicans won in previous years — then the debt limit isn’t just useless; it’s counterproductive. Why, then, did we go through all this angst for the past five years?

It’s true that both sides are guilty of “holding the country hostage” in the face of pretend “fiscal calamities” and government shutdowns. But Democrats understand that they will take none of the blame from the media when the sides fail to reach an agreement. So Republicans fear this kind of coverage far more than they fear their own base, despite years of polling that shows most voters like the debt ceiling in theory (whatever they think it means) and don’t mind if a party uses it to obtain spending cuts. In a new Associated Press-GfK poll, 56 percent of those questioned would trade a government shutdown for more spending cuts. Nearly 80 percent of Republicans claim that they would be open to closing down agencies to procure those budget cuts; even 44 percent of Democrats agree.

So the central question is: How is ceding this fight to Obama supposed to make life easier for Ryan? This is a guy who will begin his term reopening the Export-Import Bank of the United States and, now, supporting perhaps the worst fiscal policy defeat since Obamacare. What magical ideas will Ryan wring from the GOP conference that were unavailable to Boehner? And how many voters outside the Beltway care about process more than results? Democrats under Obama, for the most part, have been willing to use these deadlines to get what they can. Republicans have not. And if Ryan, a fiscal conservative by any standard, does nothing about the deal, the perception grass-roots GOP types have about the old leadership may well be transferred to the new. If that happens, this deal not only will have sold out fiscal conservatives but also may achieve the opposite of what Boehner intended.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and the author of “The People Have Spoken (and They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy.” Follow him on Twitter @davidharsanyi.

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