Lessons From the Ryan Budget Plan

April 7, 2014

I feel I ought to say something about Congressman Paul Ryan’s latest budget plan. Yet, as the ferocious overview by the Center for American Progress indicates, there’ not much that’s new — not even the title.

It’s again The Path to Prosperity, which is true if you’re already prosperous. A path to more desperate circumstances if you’re poor or near-poor.

Not a path you’d like the country to go down if you care about the safety net or many other things the federal government supports, e.g., education, workplace safety, healthcare and other scientific research.

Or if you’re counting on having affordable health care in your golden years — or even next year, if your employer doesn’t provide it.

Far too much for a blog post. So here instead are a couple of ways of looking at the plan.

The Devil Isn’t Just in the Details

Congressman Ryan, as we know, has a long-standing hostility to federal safety net programs — except Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which the plan again endorses as the model for others.

So it’s no surprise that he again wants SNAP (the food stamp program) converted to a block grant that would, in some unspecified way, expand the already-existing work requirements.

The block grant clearly wouldn’t enable states to sustain current eligibility standards and benefit levels, since it would save an estimated $125 billion over 10 years. (More savings from other changes discussed below.)

It’s also no surprise that the Path would again make a block grant out of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Funding increases would be based on inflation and population growth, rather than healthcare costs and the number of people eligible.

So the federal government would save $732 billion over 10 years. And states would have the “flexibility” to cope with the loss.

Many other programs that benefit low-income people would get cut in different ways — Pell grants, for example, and Supplemental Security Income for severely disabled children. There’d be no funds at all for the Social Services Block Grant because the plan would kill it.

But here’s the devil lurking behind such details. Ryan made safety-net slashing inevitable by building his plan on certain basic principles. These are all, I hasten to add, cherished by the right-wing House majority.

First, the budget must balance within 10 years. In other words, what the federal government spends in any given year can be no greater than what it receives in tax revenues.

At the same time, the tax code can’t be changed to increase revenues. Any savings achieved by closing loopholes and the like would have to be used to offset tax cuts.

So the federal government would have to spend a great deal less — even less than seemed the case last year because the Congressional Budget Office now takes a dimmer view of prospects for economy growth and thus of revenue collections.

But — another principle here — the federal government must spend more on defense than what the Budget Control Act allows.

So what the plan giveth to defense, it must taketh away from non-defense — even more so because Ryan aims to bring total spending under the cap.

Defense would thus get $483 billion more than the sequestration levels in the BCA. Non-defense programs subject to annual appropriations would get $791 billion less.

Add cuts to the so-called mandatory programs like Medicaid and SNAP and the total non-defense loss soars to $4.8 trillion.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

This, of course, applies to the SNAP and Medicaid block grants, as well as to the fuzzily-described premium support option for Medicare — essentially, a choice of private insurance plans, with costs partially subsidized. But less over time, according to both CAP and Families USA.

As in the past, the Ryan plan would raise the Medicare eligibility age to the already-increased eligibility age for full Social Security retirement benefits.

This would leave a lot of low-income seniors in the lurch because — you knew this was coming — the plan would repeal the Affordable Care Act, including the federal funding for states that expand their Medicaid programs.

Seniors are far from the only people who’d be affected, of course. Everyone who became newly-eligible for Medicaid and everyone who’s purchased — or intends to purchase — subsidized health insurance on an exchange would be back where they were before.

At least 40 million people — one in eight Americans — would become uninsured by 2024, when the 10-year budget window closes, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ also ferocious response to the plan.

The plan would also undo compromises reflected in the new Farm Bill. For SNAP, it reverts to what the House Republicans put on the table.

Specifically, states could no longer use receipt of a TANF benefit as a basis for determining eligibility. At least 1.8 million and perhaps as many as 3 million low-income people in 40 states and the District of Columbia would lose their SNAP benefits, according to earlier estimates.

Every year, another 1 million or so would lose them because the plan resurrects another provision that didn’t survive the negotiations. This one eliminates the waivers states can get to exempt able-bodied workers without dependents from the usual work requirements when meeting them would be extraordinarily difficult.

The plan would also eliminate a provision that House Republicans got into the Farm Bill. No more so-called “heat and eat” option at all because what they hoped to achieve, i.e., SNAP benefits cuts for some 850,000 households, hasn’t altogether succeeded.

A Big So What

Well, this is the fourth Path we’ve been treated to. The last proved so problematic that House Republicans themselves couldn’t face some of the cuts required.

In any event, Congress has already passed bills setting defense and non-defense spending caps through 2021. House Republicans can’t change them. They can’t unilaterally make the far-reaching program changes either.

The plan is, however, a clear indication of Republican priorities — a “campaign manifesto,” as The New York Times calls it. Something to bear in mind as we read nervously about the upcoming Senate elections — and look beyond to 2016.



The Message Behind the Messages in Ryan’s Budget Plan

March 18, 2013

This year I vowed not to pick apart Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan — the refurbished, but barely changed Path the Prosperity.

A path it certainly is. And it’s worth attending to because it shows where right-wing Republicans want to take us — if not all at once (highly improbable), then step by step. Or should I say manufactured crisis by crisis?

Specifically, as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson indicates, they view “civil society as an alternative to government.” This should set off alarm bells among nonprofit service providers and all of us who care about the work they do.

Like last year’s plan — and the plan the year before — it purports to strengthen the safety net by block granting Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program), thus giving states “flexibility” to manage increasing diminished federal funds.

Except that they’d have to time-limit SNAP participation, since that worked so well for former — and now desperately poor — families dumped out of the safety net by “welfare reform.”

Retirement would be secured by converting Medicare into a modified voucher program that would jack up the per person cost of traditional Medicare, thus building a fiscal case for killing it.

Meanwhile, seniors would have to pay increasingly more for their insurance because the premium support they’d get from the government wouldn’t keep pace with rising health care costs.

And the Affordable Care Act would be repealed, including the federal incentives for Medicaid expansion. So an estimated 40-50 million more low and moderate-income people too young for Medicare wouldn’t have any health insurance whatever.

Something (unspecified) would be done to cut Social Security spending. The plan cites misleadingly over-simple life expectancy increases. So we can infer that Ryan wants the eligibility age increased again.

Also “less generous benefits.” We know by now that this is code for pegging Social Security cost-of-living adjustments to the chained CPI, which rises more slowly than the price index used now.

But the plan itself merely directs the President and Congress to propose reform legislation — a profile in courage, as one advocate remarked.

But I said I wasn’t going to write about these things. And here I am off on a tear.

The combination of what Robert Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls “reverse Robin Hood policies” and the euphemisms used to describe them does that to me.

Well, the Path will die in the Senate, just like the previous plans. So the most we can say about it as a genuine budget blueprint is that it sets the stage of another partisan standoff.

What actually struck me about the plan was the introductory justification — not the lead-off hysteria about the imagined debt crisis, but the celebration of community.

The budget, Ryan says, “makes room for community — for the vast middle ground between government and the person.” People find happiness “through friendship, … in their families, their places of worship and youth groups.”

“While we belong to one country, we also belong to thousands of communities.” They encourage our personal growth. “So the duty of government is not to displace these communities, but to support them.”

Who could argue with that? Only someone, I suppose, who thought that the federal government was — or should be — the source of our personal happiness, sense of “belonging and self-fulfillment.”

The explicit message is that our communities — and our families — face many dangers, i.e., “rising health costs, a stagnant economy, massive debt, an uncertain world.”

The federal government can do something about these, but it shouldn’t play the leading role because its proper business is to “secure our individual rights and protect … [community] diversity.”

The unspoken message is that Ryan and his right-wing colleagues aim to divest the federal government of core responsibilities for the health, well-being and economic opportunities of the population as a whole.

The proposed Medicaid and SNAP block grants wouldn’t merely shift funding responsibilities to the states — by shrinking the federal cost shares over time.

They would ultimately shift feeding and tending to the medical needs of low-income people onto local communities because it’s wholly unrealistic to believe that states would — or even could — continue to absorb the costs of retaining these critical safety net programs intact.

Nor make up for deeper, as-yet-unspecified cuts to non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, e.g., education, transportation, public safety, housing assistance.

They’d be billions larger than those the current law requires because the Ryan budget would shift all further mandated cuts in defense to those other so-called discretionary programs.

States could also lose funds for school meals, other child nutrition programs and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because another $800 billion would be taken from programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations — in addition to those, like SNAP and the major health care programs, that the plan specifically names.

We would, in other words, return to some long ago time when faith-based and other local community organizations cared for the poor in their communities as best they could, with no government help whatever.

Many communities today have strong networks of nonprofit organizations that both supplement and serve as channels for federal spending on both safety net programs and others that meet vital human and economic needs.

But not all communities have such organizations.

And I doubt you could find a nonprofit anywhere that would say that it — and others in its network — could meet the needs of all low-income community members if the federal government backed out of its anti-poverty commitments.

In short, the budget plan presents a clear contrast between the right-wing Republican vision for our society and the vision President Obama campaigned on — that “we are greater together” and that government is a way we come together to help give life to values we commonly share.

Well, most of us anyway.

Why I’ve Little to Say About the Ryan-Republican Budget … But Say It Anyway

March 25, 2012

I feel I ought to write something about the Ryan-Republican budget plan. I’ve been advised to call it that because it represents the platform Republicans are running on.

I’veĀ  read the Path to PovertyProsperity twice now. Both times got infuriated, which usually gets my blogging juices flowing.

But I’m stuck for a fresh topic. So I’ll write about that because the reasons are telling.

Proposals Replicate Last Year’s

One reason it’s hard for me to figure out what to write is that the new budget plan is in many ways the same as last years — at least for the issues I cover.

As you’ve probably read, it does take a new tack on privatizing Medicare. But the end results would be the same — costs increasingly shifted to seniors, ultimately less health care — and death of the traditional Medicare option the plan supposedly preserves.

So far as safety net programs are concerned, the two the Path gives specifics about are basically rehashes of the 2011 Path proposals.

Change Medicaid from a cost-sharing program to a block grant. Link increases in federal funding to population growth and the overall inflation rate rather than to health care costs. And let states do whatever to cope with the cost crunch.

Well, I wrote about that last year.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has updated figures, but the bottom line is still the same — many millions of low-income people without health insurance, fewer services and/or higher co-pays for those fortunate enough to still qualify.

Same deal for the food stamp program. Once again, the budget plan would convert it to a block grant, using the deeply-flawed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a model.

There’d be new work requirements for participants — and time limits, even apparently for the nearly 30% of households that have income from work. Also apparently for those too young, too old or too disabled to work — well over half of all participants.

And again federal funding would be capped at a level far below projected costs.

But I’ve already written about this attack on the safety net too.

The only news is that the block grant would kick in one year later and cut federal spending by more — at least $133.5 billion over the first 10 years, rather than the $127 billion estimated last year.

Plan Lacks Specifics

The other reason I find it hard to write about the budget plan is that it’s egregiously short on specifics.

The food stamp program, for example, is lumped into a category called “other mandatory,” i.e., all programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations for funding, except for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a couple of other health care programs.

Jim Horney, CBPP’s Vice President for Federal Fiscal Policy, tells us that the budget plan reflects $1.2 trillion less than projected spending for these programs under current policies.

So even if one accepts Congressman Ryan’s assumed savings in farm subsidies and the federal retirement plan, there’d still be $900 billion in savings unaccounted for.

Where would they come from? Subsidized school meals and/or other child nutrition programs? Supplemental Security Income for low-income elderly and disabled people? Unemployment insurance? TANF (again)?

All of the above?

The same question mark hangs over non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations — education and job training, housing assistance, veterans benefits, food safety, law enforcement, highways and a whole lot more.

Funding for these programs would be cut $1.2 trillion more than under the caps Congress agreed to last August. Where would the ax fall? Or rather, how close to the ground — and when?

Drastic Changes Deserve Informed Debate

Speaking of the mandatory programs, Horney concludes that “it would be a real travesty” to pass a budget like the Ryan-Republican plan “without a full and honest debate about [the cuts] and without leveling with policymakers and the public what cuts the … budget envisions.”

I think the same is true for the so-called non-defense discretionary programs. True, it’s up to the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommitees to decide exactly how to apportion the cuts.

But we ought to be told straight out how the Ryan-Republican budget would transform our country — because it surely would.

A preliminary analysis by the Congressional Budget Office indicates that, by mid-century, there’d be virtually no funding left for anything except defense, Social Security, the major mandatory health care programs and interest on the debt.

The rest of the federal government would, as arch-conservative Grover Norquist wishes, have been shrunk so small it could be drowned in a bathtub.

Surely this merits more debate than the annual budget process allows — and a full, frank accounting to base it on.

UPDATE: After I posted this, I discovered that the House Budget Committee had published a report that essentially spells out the Fiscal Year 2013 plan in greater detail. It says that block granting the food stamp program would save $122.5 billion over the first 10 years.