Power of a balanced budget

In 1995, at Xerox Document University, Newt Gingrich and John Kasich convinced the revolutionary class of 1994 and reluctant old-timers to work together to produce the first balanced budget in a generation. 

Kasich’s budget included a pro-growth tax reform agenda and some painful cuts to some entitlement programs, chiefly Medicare and Medicaid. 

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Republicans passed that first balanced budget, and through some luck and some unforeseen economic growth, the budget magically balanced three years later. 

The surplus would never have happened had Kasich and Gingrich not had the guts to push through that initial House budget. 

After two costly wars and a financial crisis that tanked tax revenues and pushed up welfare spending, as well as an ambitious spending program by the Obama administration, the budget is once again severely out of whack. Our debt problems have become a national obsession, spawning new groups that have focused almost entirely on the $16 trillion that the government currently piles on to future generations. 

But you can’t “Fix the Debt” unless you start the process of balancing the budget. And later this week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will offer an updated version of the Kasich plan to balance the budget.

Democrats will mock the Ryan effort. They will slam it. They will accuse the Wisconsin native of all kinds of perfidy and destruction. They will pick at pieces of his plan, from the Medicare reforms to the Medicaid cuts to the cuts to discretionary spending. They will also condemn Ryan for not raising taxes on rich people, despite the fact that the GOP budget does assume that the tax increases from earlier this year stay in place.

But the Democrats underestimate the power of the balanced budget. And because the president and his team will not offer their own version, they will be on the defensive for the next two years — unless, of course, President Obama decides to move ahead with a grand bargain. 

House Republicans have seen the polling data and they know that balancing the budget in 10 years is by far their best political message. For a party that seemingly spends more time playing intramural politics than it does going on offense against the other team, the balanced budget message is a godsend. 

I assume that the Democrats want to see how this plays out before they seriously get in the budget game. 

That must be the only explanation as to why the president has not sent his budget up to Capitol Hill as of yet. This might be the first time since the budget reform act of 1974 that the House of Representatives will start action on their budget process before the president has put together his plan.

I was always taught in school that the president proposes and the Congress disposes. But Obama doesn’t seem very interested in actually leading. He is leaving that responsibility to the House Budget Committee chairman. 

Senate Democrats have their paychecks riding on the gamble that they will produce their first budget resolution in four years. With Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) gone, the new budget chairwoman, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), whose most recent job was to run the campaign committee for Senate Democrats, will tread very carefully, poll-testing every conceivable option. 

But she will probably not produce the single best message on the budget: the fact that it balances. She can’t raise taxes high enough and she won’t set spending levels low enough to get to balance in the next 20 years. Her liberal constituencies simply won’t allow that to happen. 

For a Republican conference that is becoming increasingly fractious, the fact that the Ryan budget actually balances will help to unite the caucus. And Democrats, who like to talk about how their budget represents a “balanced approach,” won’t be able to hide from the fact that their balanced approach won’t ever lead to an actual balanced budget. 

That gives the Republicans the edge on credibility that will help them as this debate moves forward in the next couple of months. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.