Sunday, April 05, 2009

the gop alternative(s)

When I worked on Capitol Hill in the 1980s the House Republicans would always come up with a complete, fully budgeted alternative to the Majority (then Democratic) tax and budget bills. I could never decide whether this was ultimate devotion or ultimate folly: the Republican plan had no chance whatsoever of passage, but still they labored on, asking for revenue estimates into the wee hours of the morning. Then, in 1994, the GOP took over, and suddenly the time developing and scoring alternatives was no longer wasted.

I thought about this last week when Rep. Paul Ryan, ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee and a sort of guru for thoughtful Republicans, presented his party's alternative to President Obama's budget. As might be expected, the plan has received mixed reviews from the national media, both for its lack of detailed numbers and its, well, not entirely original flavor. ("If you expected a [serious] GOP alternative," remarked one OMB official, "then I have two words for you: April Fool's.")

The criticisms of Ryan's proposal are to some degree unfair. While much of it is GOP boilerplate (business tax cuts, social security reform, a freeze on nondefense spending), it also contains a lot of original and even courageous ideas, including an "optional" comprehensive tax reform with a two-rate (10 and 25 percent) system and increased personal exemptions (taxpayers would have the choice of paying under the old or new systems); the introduction of limited means testing in the Medicare and Social Security Systems; and a comprehensive energy plan (including further oil and gas exploration but also a new clean energy trust fund). Of course, it's easy to make these proposals when you know they won't pass. But Obama is also proposing things (itemized deduction cutbacks, a cap and trade emissions system) that won't pass in anything like their current form: sometimes the idea matters most.

The problem with the GOP proposal is that these details tend to get buried in the fine print, while the headlines emphasize tax and spending cuts and an overall in-your-face rejection of Obama's undoubtedly excessive, but ideologically coherent, spending plans. A further problem is that, by foregoing greater detail, the Republicans have fed the suspicion that they are more interested in embarassing Obama than creating a full-scale Shadow Government. Each of these problems is eminently fixable: authors like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have developed detailed conservative proposals on education, energy, health care, and almost everything else, and the GOP revenue estimates would likely be no less credible than the Democratic numbers. The problem is political rather than technical: coming in most cases from conservative districts, House Republicans are leery of anything which deviates from party orthodoxy or grants even a shred of legitimacy to Obama's approach. Ryan did his best to square this circle, but it's not clear he did so effectively.

The good news is it's still early and Democrats are, too say the least, overconfident. Two of the main news stories this week were an additional half a million job losses and the three dresses that Michelle Obama wore on one day in Europe. That kind of contradiction tends to catch up with you, and if the two party system can't find an answer for it, somebody else will.


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