Congressman Ryan Defends His Radical Budget Plan

July 15, 2011

Recently listened in on a telephone interview with Congressman Paul Ryan, architect of the House of Representatives’ Fiscal Year 2012 budget plan.

One never knows, of course. But I’m inclined to believe that Ryan genuinely believes what he says.

In any event, we need to take what he says seriously because it shows how the Republican leadership wants to refashion social policy — and how it will justify the changes.

So here, in a nutshell, is what Ryan had to say about safety net programs and my comments thereon.

The House plan saves the safety net. This is Ryan’s over-arching argument. Our nation faces a fiscal crisis, he says. If we don’t address it, we’ll have to make drastic austerity cuts like what we’re seeing in Greece.

The House plan makes “gradual, sensible reforms.” They avert “real pain” because the alternative will be “cutting everyone indiscriminately.”

In other words, cuts to safety net programs are inevitable. We can opt to phase them in now or be forced to make them in one fell swoop later.

The former is better because only across-the-board cuts are painful. Why targeted cuts aren’t painful to the people they affect is a mystery.

Unsaid, but clearly implied is the notion that the federal government can’t afford to sustain safety net programs as they’re designed today. This should not be surprising since Ryan rules out any deficit reduction plan that involves raising more tax revenues.

Also unsaid, but clearly implied is the notion that safety net programs are a major factor in the upward-trending deficit. Not, so far as I know, a conclusion the data will support.

Experts of all political stripes are concerned about the rising costs of health care. These, of course, affect federally-subsidized health insurance programs, but the programs aren’t the driver.

Safety net programs help too many people. Ryan says we need to focus safety net programs on people who need help the most — and away from those who need it least.

In other words, eligibility standards for safety net programs should be made more restrictive. They’re now including people who should be left to cope on their own.

Ryan doesn’t say what the standard of need should be. One has to assume that it would be well below the federal poverty line to yield the kinds of savings he seems to feel are needed.

We’d then live in a society that accepts hunger, homelessness, untreated illnesses, etc. as just sad facts of life — something we can’t collectively do much about because it’s more important to have lower top tax rates.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families should be the model for all safety net programs. All “welfare” programs, it seems, should be time-limited. Their reason for being is to “get people back on their own two feet.” Too frequently they become “a web that entraps people into a life of dependency.”

I’ve animadverted before about House Republicans’ seeming romance with TANF.

More generally, the notion that safety net programs undermine initiative, hard work and the like is becoming a virtual truism — and not among Republicans only.

Here in the District of Columbia, for example, our dyed-in-the-wool Democratic mayor, among others, has used it to justify time-limiting TANF benefits.

What’s striking to me is the assumption that people who need public benefits are, without exception, just down on their luck. They can all, with some training and other services, become entirely self-sufficient.

I can’t help thinking that Ryan and his ilk don’t know much about people who receive public benefits. Many of them, after all, are working but can’t earn enough to full support themselves and their families.

That takes a lot of money these days — even in places that aren’t as high cost as, say, the D.C. metro area, where a parent with two kids would need at least $63,430 a year just to pay for basic living costs.

Many low-income people face what experts tactfully term “employment barriers” — severe intellectual and/or physical disabilities, debilitating mental and/or physical illnesses, dependents with same, functional illiteracy, criminal records, etc.

It’s surely right and proper to do all we can to help these people get into the workforce. But adopting a system that will leave them entirely dependent on their earnings — no subsidized child care or health insurance, no housing vouchers, no nothing?

Communities should be free to have whatever sort of safety net they want. Ryan claims that Washington has denied communities “flexibility” and opportunities for “innovation.” This is the other face of his aim to extend the TANF model to other safety net programs.

In point of fact, state and local policymakers seem to have considerable flexibility now when it comes to outreach innovations, service delivery models, program administration and, even to some extent, benefits.

Anyone who thinks the federal government should get out of the standards-setting business altogether should take a look at how states are using the flexibility they’re afforded under TANF.

I, for one, would rather see Washington “lull creativity” than see any state limit safety net programs to 24 months and/or to households at 14% of the federal poverty line.

UPDATE: After I posted this, I learned that the interview is now online. You can listen to it or download the transcript here. Caution, however. The transcript is not 100% accurate.


Big Myths Used To Sell Food Stamp Block Grant

May 12, 2011

I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.

It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.

The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.

But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.

The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”

Complacency? Ryan and his colleagues obviously haven’t taken a food stamp challenge recently — or tried to support themselves and their families on an income well below the federal poverty line.

The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.

The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.

The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.

Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.

But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.

That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.

They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.

The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”

Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.


House Republicans Vote To End Food Stamp Program As We Know It

May 5, 2011

I remarked awhile ago that parts of the House Republican Study Committee’s global attack on “welfare” could make their way into legislation that had a better chance of passing.

And sure enough. The budget plan House Republicans have passed includes a provision that would convert SNAP (the food stamp program) into a block grant rather like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Lest one doubt the motive, the plan projects savings totaling $127 billion over the first 10 years alone. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates losses to the District of Columbia and its food stamp-dependent households at $350 million.

I’ve written elsewhere about what the block grant could mean for households that depend on food stamps to keep food on the table.

Briefly, the block grant would put an inflexible constraint on spending, while presumably increasing flexibility on issues like participation criteria and benefits.

So Congress or states, at their discretion, could — and probably would have to — change eligibility standards so that people would have to be even poorer to qualify for food stamps and/or reduce monthly benefits so that they no longer had any basis in the costs of a nutritious diet.

We can see how the spending cap/flexibility model could play out by looking at states’ TANF programs.

According to a recent Legal Momentum review, only 40% of eligible families were enrolled in TANF in 2005, as compared to 84% in the last year of its non-block grant predecessor.

Cash benefits for a TANF family of three are less than 50% of the federal poverty line in every states and less than 30% in more than half. In all but two, they’re worth less in real-dollar value than when the program was created.

The food stamp block grant proposal has other radical implications.

It would end the long-standing principle that everyone (except some immigrants) whose income falls below the cut-off can get food stamps — and for as long as their income remains that low.

As with TANF, there would be new work requirements. But unlike TANF, there’d apparently be no federal funding within the program for client assessments, job training or the supportive services some recipients would need to meet the requirements, e.g., child care subsidies.

More importantly, food stamp benefits would be time-limited, just as TANF cash benefits are. After some number of years, people would be kicked out of the program, unless states chose to cover the full costs of the benefits themselves.

Would there by any exemptions — say, for people who are too young, too old or too disabled to work? For people who are working but still can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves or their families?

The budget plan doesn’t say. Doubtful the House members who voted for it — or even the drafters — have thought through such consequential details.

All they’re concerned about is cutting federal spending, except when it comes to the more than 50% of annual appropriations that go to the military.

But, like the RSC, the budget plan styles the food stamp block grant as the next step in “the historic bipartisan welfare reform” that gave us TANF.

Here’s hoping we’ve got no bipartisan support for this one — or lock-step support from Senate Republicans either.


Budget Debate Is About Values, Not Numbers

April 30, 2011

New York Times columnist Richard Stevenson provides a good overview of the budget debate underway on Capitol Hill. It’s a “fundamental reassessment of the role and size of government,” he says.

But, as his article suggests, what we’re witnessing is actually a conflict of value systems — core beliefs that extend beyond theories of government.

Republicans are arguing that drastic spending cuts are the only way to avert fiscal disaster — and to create jobs. Most oppose any changes in the tax code that would increase revenues — at least until the unemployment rate has dropped to pre-recession levels. They’re “job killing,” you know.

But neither shrinking the deficit nor boosting job creation drives the Republicans’ agenda. The fact that both reflect the priorities of a wide spectrum of voters gives them an occasion to advance major policy changes consistent with their values.

By and large, Republicans want to whittle the federal government down because their value system puts individual — and corporate — liberty first.

You’re free to choose what you do. And you’re free to keep what you get, less what’s needed for a “robust defense” and presumably other functions that enable businesses to freely grow and prosper.

Thus, the budget resolution the Republican House majority just passed defines government’s “limited but noble mission [as] securing every American’s right to pursue a destiny of his or her own choosing.” And it calls for tax reforms that will let “individuals keep more of what they earn.”

The Democrats have argued that spending cuts right now would cause job losses, but they’ve decided they can’t hold the line. Some would say that the Democrat-in-chief didn’t try hard enough.

But we can’t discount the hard-won recognition that Republicans in Congress can — and will — extort spending cuts as the price for averting national crises. A government shutdown yesterday. Default on the federal debt this summer.

Democrats are nevertheless still coming at our fiscal situation from a different value system. Basically, they’re promoting an agenda that tilts toward our obligations to one another and the good of the whole — obligations that we fulfill through our public institutions.

In other words, they’re placing a high value on the nation as a community. To some extent, this means that individual liberty, as the Republicans conceive it, gives way to “the general Welfare” that’s also envisioned as a goal of the government created by our Constitution.

Beyond this, the agenda reflects the view that we need to act collectively, through our government, to expand opportunity — a necessary, though not sufficient condition for a more equal sharing of the profits generated by economic growth.

Thus, for example, the President wants more funding next year for both Head Start and Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the main source of federal funding to improve the education of disadvantaged kids. House Republicans voted to cut current funding levels for both.

I’ve got serious reservations about other parts of the President’s proposed budget — and even more serious reservations about his seeming readiness to embrace even deeper spending cuts.

But I all but stood up and applauded at the end of his speech on his approach to deficit reduction. Because it so clearly articulated the clash in basic values that underlies the current budget debate — one the House budget resolution obfuscates in its claim to “strengthen the social safety net.”

“From our first days as a nation,” the President said, “we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise…. But there has always been another thread running throughout our history — a belief that we are all connected.”

And “part of this belief expresses itself in the conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security.” So we collectively contribute to programs like Medicare, Social Security and others we commonly refer to as the safety net.

The vision in the House Republicans’ budget plan, he said, “is less about reducing the deficit than about changing the social compact in America.” I think that’s right on target.

And, as Stevenson observes, Republican leaders and their supporters objected to “the implication of heartlessness, but not necessarily to his assessment of their ambition.”


How Congressman Ryan’s Radical Health Care Proposals Would Impact DC

April 12, 2011

Now the answer to a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I looked at Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposals for federal health care programs. What would they mean for the District of Columbia and its residents?

Families USA has just issued a report with state-by-state impact figures for each of the major health care parts of Ryan’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget resolution — his so-called Pathway to Prosperity.

Here’s what we learn.

Medicaid Block Grant. As you may recall, the Ryan plan would convert Medicaid to a block grant. Grants would be adjusted according to a formula that reflected neither rising health care costs nor the aging of the population. The latter is important because state Medicaid programs spend more for low-income seniors than for most other covered groups.

Under the block grant, the District’s existing program would lose $4.4 million next year. Losses would grow exponentially every year thereafter. For the entire first 10-year period, 2012-2021, they would total more than $3.4 billion.

Funding for Medicaid Expansion. Under the health care reform act, states must expand their Medicaid programs to include all people with incomes at or below 133% of the federal poverty line. The federal government will pay all the costs of the expansion for the first three years and most of the costs thereafter.

The Ryan plan would repeal both the expansion requirement and the related funding. Losses to the District by 2021 would reportedly total well over $1.2 billion.

“Reportedly” because Families USA assumed that the District would undertake the expansion in 2014, as the law requires. I understand it’s decided to move at least some eligible residents into Medicaid earlier. This might affect the estimate.

Tax Credits for Insurance Premiums. The health care reform act includes tax credits to help moderate-income families purchase health insurance in the exchanges that will be created. Credits will be available to families up to 400% of the federal poverty line.

The Ryan plan would repeal this provision also. District residents eligible for the tax credits would lose $37.4 million in 2014, the year they’d become available under the current law.

Here again, losses would dramatically escalate. During the 2012-21 period, they’d total close to $1.3 billion.

The health care reform act also provides tax credits for small businesses and some other incentives to encourage employers to provide health insurance. These too would be repealed under the Ryan plan.

Loss of all the tax credits, plus the loss of federal funding for expansion of Medicaid would mean that at least 46,600 District residents would have no health insurance 10 years from now.

Medicare Privatization. Under the Ryan plan, people now under 55 would be subject to an altogether different health insurance scheme when they reached Medicare eligibility age or became severely disabled before that.

Instead of enrolling in the fairly comprehensive, low-cost insurance plan we know as Medicare, they’d get the equivalent of a voucher to purchase health insurance in the private market. As I noted earlier, the value of the voucher would increase at a much lower rate than health care costs.

Families USA doesn’t provide state-by-state figures for the budget crunch that seniors and people too disabled to work would face. The Congressional Budget Office, however, did some preliminary national estimates.

According to these, typical 65 year olds enrolled in a private insurance plan similar to the current Medicare would pay 68% of their health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs in 2030. This is 43% more than what they’d pay under Medicare as it exists today.

And the total costs would be much greater because Medicare delivers more health care bang for the buck than private insurance plans.

Bottom Line. If the Ryan proposals for Medicaid, Medicare and health insurance tax credits were all adopted, the District and its residents would lose more than $6 billion in the first 10 years alone.

And for what? So that $4.2 trillion could be used to finance extended and expanded tax breaks that would make the wealthiest even wealthier.


Congressman Ryan’s Radical Attack On Our Health Care System

April 7, 2011

Republicans in Congress made a big deal of the fact that the health care reform legislation was more than 1,000 pages long. A large portion of those pages spelled out initiatives aimed at controlling health care costs.

Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a simpler way of cutting federal health care spending. Just stop paying for the health care people need.

His just-released Fiscal Year 2012 budget resolution, The Pathway to Prosperity, would make two radical changes in our health care system.

It would convert Medicare from a health insurance program for seniors and severely disabled people to subsidies that would partially cover the costs of health insurance they purchase on the private market.

Ryan claims that his plan will unleash competition by letting patients choose the plan that delivers high-quality services for the lowest cost.

But, of course, that’s how a vast number of people get their health insurance now — not only the members of Congress Ryan mentions, but others who get their health insurance through their employers or purchase it on their own. Yet health care costs are spiraling.

So how will the Ryan plan save money? Pathway to Prosperity makes the conventional references to waste and abuse, but is otherwise judiciously vague.

But Ryan’s earlier Roadmap for America’s Future certainly wasn’t. Nor was the similar plan he developed in partnership with Alice Rivlin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget.

Ryan would reduce federal Medicare spending by adjusting the value of the subsidies according to an inflation index that doesn’t reflect rising health care costs. This produces an even bigger crunch than Ryan-Rivlin.

So, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, seniors and other beneficiaries would have to shoulder more and more of their health insurance costs or switch to plans that provide significantly less protection.

Ryan would also convert Medicaid from a genuine federal-state partnership into a block grant — a different type of cost shift, but with similar results.

The federal government now covers a certain percentage of states’ Medicaid costs — somewhere between half and three-quarters, depending on a state’s average per person income.

Under Ryan’s plan, states would get a fixed amount of money — the same in good times and bad, somewhat more over time, but considerably less than would be needed to accommodate rising health care costs and the aging of the population.

States would get enormous “flexibility” (favorite Republican word). They’d no longer have to enroll everyone whose income was low enough to fall below a standard threshold — or indeed, any threshold at all. Nor would they have to provide a specified minimum package of essential services.

Ryan claims that the block grant would eliminate incentives that have led states to expand coverage to people who aren’t “truly in need” — as if people who now qualify for Medicaid aren’t.

States would also, he says, gain freedom from unspecified restrictions that keep them from making their programs “smart” and “efficient.”

We’ve already seen what happens when states face budget pressures due to a combination of lower revenues and rising safety net costs. They look for savings in Medicaid, which accounts for a large percentage of those costs.

And they exercise what’s actually considerable flexibility to eliminate benefits federal rules don’t require — home care that keeps frail elderly people out of nursing homes, hearing aids and eyeglasses, preventive dental care, even life-saving organ transplants.

They make further cuts in reimbursement rates, effectively denying Medicaid participants health care because doctors won’t treat them.

They seek permission to drop people from the program — something they wouldn’t have to do under Ryan’s plan because it would repeal most of the health care reform act, which bars states from rolling back Medicaid coverage.

And recall, this is all happening under the current funding formula.

Ryan says that his plan for Medicaid would save $1 trillion over 10 years. Only one way that could happen. Less federal funding than under the current system — probably progressively less relative to need as time goes on.

States could in theory pick up the difference. But it’s more likely that most would ramp up the kinds of cost-cutting measures we’re seeing now — and go in for others we’re not seeing, thanks only to federal rules.

The Ryan plan may be a pathway to prosperity for the wealthiest, who would enjoy a further 10% cut in their income tax rate. But it’s a pathway to unnecessary pain, suffering and economic insecurity for the rest of us.

UPDATE: The Ryan plan is more generous to the very wealthy than I realized. The Wall Street Journal reports that it would not only cut the top income tax bracket, but eliminate the recently-enacted surtax on high earners’ investment income.


Congress Rejects Estate Tax Cuts

May 3, 2009

As you’ve probably read, Congress has adopted a final budget resolution, which resolves differences between the versions the House and Senate earlier passed. The estate tax cuts in the Senate version didn’t survive the negotiations.

The resolution instead would lock in the current estate tax exemption–a hefty $7 million for a couple. The exemption would be indexed for inflation. So the exempt amount, though not its real value, would increase annually.

This is good news for those of us who would like to see tax benefits focused on low-income workers and revenues available for programs that serve their needs. But it’s not quite the end of the story.

After all, the budget resolution isn’t the budget. It’s just a framework for the separate spending and tax bills that the House and Senate committees will develop in months to come, plus instructions for certain legislative changes. So we’re bound to hear more about endangered small businesses in months to come.

But advocates of a further estate tax rollback will have a tough time–at least in the House–because even the extension in the budget resolution will have to be “paid for” by spending cuts or tax increases.

It’s doubtful the House Democratic majority will try to pay for a tax cut that would benefit only the very wealthiest families when the alternative could be extending the recent tax cut for workers–or, for that matter, several due-to-expire benefits for middle-income taxpayers.

But the Senate isn’t committed to the pay-as-you-go principle, i.e., the need to offset tax cuts and new spending so that they don’t increase the deficit. A critical mass of Senate Democrats bought into the estate tax giveaway once. They just might do it again.


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