America, We Need to Talk About the Deficit

In his inaugural column for The Root, Michael Steele takes both sides of the aisle to task for their reaction to Rep. Paul Ryan's budget.

It is the way of Washington to tear down that which it does not understand — or, more aptly, fears. Such is the case with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal. There is no doubt that Ryan’s proposals have caused a reality check for both the left and the right. In one of the most comprehensive overhauls of our nation’s budget, Ryan recognizes that the brave new world of true fiscal discipline is not just about spending; it’s also about taxes.

The recent wrangling over the 2011 budget painfully reminded us that traditional battle lines were still being drawn: The president wanted to tax “the rich” (those of you earning more than $250,000), and Republicans wanted to make the “Bush tax cuts” permanent (the tax cuts were due to expire in 2010, but the president cut a deal to extend them until 2012).

However, Ryan has pushed back on the old assumptions about taxes and spending policies by producing an intellectually honest and challenging budget proposal that deserves an intellectually honest debate. But when talk of Ryan’s attempt to change the way Washington taxes and spends the people’s money first surfaced more than a year ago, establishment Republicans were, let’s just say, tepid in their response.

Indeed, as reported at the time, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner said, “Paul Ryan is [the] ranking member on our budget committee, who has done an awful lot of work in putting together his road map. But it’s his.” Meanwhile, other nameless GOP staffers grumbled publicly, “It [is] not useful to have Ryan offering himself as the point man for Republican budget ideas before the party has unified around its plan.”

But establishment Democrats were worse. In fact, their response to Ryan’s plan was typical. In the course of several press conferences, the words “vouchers,” “privatize,” “Bush” and “unfair” were used in full-throated fervor. Connecticut Rep. John Larson, Democratic Caucus chairman, called the Ryan road map an “excise tax on steroids” and noted that Ryan and the Republicans are “frozen in the ice of their own indifference.” And we know what they had to say about Ryan’s final budget proposal, recently passed by Congress.

There’s one thing to be said about bipartisanship in Washington: Everyone wants it when officials sense something is about to change the way they do business. It’s how they close ranks on a problem — not necessarily in order to solve it.

At present our nation is lurching deeper into debt, with higher deficits and uncontrolled spending. The warning signs about just how precarious our situation is are become more clear with each passing day. The recent decision by the Standard & Poor’s rating agency to downgrade the United States’ credit outlook to “negative” sent a shock wave through the markets, resulting in a 140-point drop in the Dow. The public’s growing concern and increasing skepticism about the ability of the White House and congressional leaders to move the budget agenda forward are stark and sad reminders of just how little confidence we have in both branches of government.

Over two administrations, the political establishment in Washington has indicted itself in its handling of our nation’s business. There has been no change, only more of the same, and it will take an audacious stroke like Ryan’s proposal to break the bait and switch of budget politics.

It’s clear that Paul Ryan has thrown down the budget (and political) gauntlet. It’s a risky but necessary move by Republicans in order to address the most significant and dangerous fiscal mess the country has confronted in three generations. Is the Ryan budget plan flawless? Of course not (it does very little to tackle defense spending, for example), but what I like most about Ryan’s effort is that it has moved the public debate from how much more to spend to how much more — and what — to cut.

Now, if only our leaders would join Ryan and the American people and do the same without the characteristic demagogic rhetoric, hysterical exaggerations and budget gimmicks. That would be change we could believe in. Seriously.

Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007.

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