WASHINGTON - To date, Mitt Romney has been criticized for the lack of detail behind his promise to reduce the nation's rising debt through sweeping spending cuts and tax changes, but also politically insulated by it. Now, his gamble in tapping Rep. Paul Ryan, the architect of the audacious House Republican budget plan, as his running mate changes all of that.
The budgets that Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has pushed through the Republican-controlled House have defined nothing short of a conservative reordering of the nation's tax and spending priorities for the 21st century. In greatly shrinking government, it would largely undo the social safety net -- shifting more costs onto individuals and essentially converting Medicare into a voucher program -- and adjust the progressive income-tax system, both built through the 20th century under Republican as well as Democratic presidents.
The Ryan budgets were predictably blocked by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Yet should Romney win the election, it is far from clear how a Romney-Ryan budget would fare even in a friendlier Congress, given the politically and fiscally fraught particulars that have been proposed.
The Ryan budget, which Romney endorsed during the race for the GOP nomination, would cut about $6 trillion from projected spending in its first 10 years. But the plan also would cut revenues by $4 trillion, and more over time, by slashing individual and corporate income taxes. The government would not run a surplus for three decades, said the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office -- an outcome that would have been heresy to pro-tax-cut, anti-deficit Republicans of the past, including Ronald Reagan.
The trajectory of Ryan's budget plans and his rise in the party parallel the shift in GOP fiscal thinking. Though colleagues saw him as an intellectual force in the party, Ryan's push to rein in federal spending was viewed with caution by party elders like Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, now House speaker, who appreciated Ryan's enthusiasm but was wary of the political implications of his plans to reshape Medicare and Social Security.
Nonpartisan analyses of Ryan's proposed income-tax cuts reached conclusions much like that in recent weeks about Romney's tax proposals: "The tax cuts in Paul Ryan's 2013 budget plan would result in huge benefits for high-income people and very modest -- or no -- benefits for low-income working households," Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute wrote in summarizing the findings of the Tax Policy Center.
As for spending, Ryan would not only reduce but also remake the entitlement programs -- Medicare and Medicaid -- whose projected growth drives the forecasts of unsustainable federal debt as medical costs keep rising and the population ages. Analyzing a slightly different version of Ryan's proposal last year, the Congressional Budget Office said that "most elderly people would pay more for their health care."
The additional costs, averaging perhaps $6,400 for a typical beneficiary in 2022, would require older Americans to "reduce their use of health care services, spend less on other goods and services, or save more in advance of retirement," the report said. Ryan has tweaked his proposal in the last year, but Democrats are sure to cite the budget office report to argue against the plan.