Finally, a serious budget

Paul Ryan has seized the opening created by the utter lack of presidential leadership and delivered a bold plan to bring the nation back from the brink of bankruptcy. Chairman Ryan would have crafted a serious proposal regardless, but the absence of a viable alternative means conservatives get to set the benchmark for debate. And the standards are high, consistent with the magnitude of the challenge.

Where Obama's budget creates $8.7 trillion in new spending, Ryan cuts $6.2 trillion over ten years. The Republican plan posts a 2012 deficit under $1 trillion and reduces deficits by $4.4 trillion, while Obama's plan would deliver the fourth consecutive yearly deficit exceeding $1 trillion.

The GOP proposal recognizes two inescapable facts: our $14 trillion debt cannot be sustained, and it can't be solved without addressing the 60 percent of the budget devoted to entitlements.

Reforming Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security is vital not only to getting debt under control but also to rescuing the programs themselves from insolvency. This budget doesn't affect benefits for those 55 and older, but benefits won't be there at all for younger generations unless we take action. Giving future Medicare beneficiaries access to the same health care program enjoyed by members of Congress will inject competition to the outdated, overpriced system, reducing costs and increasing choice. Converting the federal portion of Medicaid spending into block grants will save $750 billion over ten years and give state governments the flexibility they've long sought to make their own decisions about how best to serve the needs of their populations.

For Social Security, the plan includes a trigger ensuring prompt legislative action. Once the Board of Trustees determines the program is insolvent, the president, along with both houses of Congress, will be required to submit plans to balance the fund. As of this year, Social Security is already paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes, so the trigger provision will be activated very soon and the Budget Committee will begin work on a serious proposal shortly. 

From entitlements to tax reform and defense spending, the Republican budget leaves no risk untaken. As a good-faith effort to reverse the disastrous debt trajectory, it commands respect. If judged strictly as an attempt to score political points, it breaks every rule in the book -- which is perhaps the clearest indication of its seriousness.

The collective political wisdom of decades teaches that you don't tackle Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security - much less all three -  in an election year. President Obama certainly heeded this dictum in his own anemic budget.  Congressional Democrats may decide it is in their political interest to hurl criticism from the cheap seats rather than introduce their own plan into the arena.  

In the past, this approach would admittedly be the safe one. But the financial meltdown of 2008 and the ongoing recession have provided a very painful and instructive preview of what is in store if we continue down the current path. Voter demand for spending cuts is at an all-time high, and we've already seen the effects in the 2010 midterm landslide. Polls show that public opinion might not have coalesced around a particular approach, but there is widespread recognition that our children and grandchildren face a sharply diminished standard of living if we do not take action to reduce the debt. Thanks to Obama's timidity, Paul Ryan and House Republicans are currently in possession of the only serious plan to do that.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) is a member of the House Budget and Appropriations committees. 

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