When House Republicans pass Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget for a fourth year in a row this week, they’ll go on record again in favor of big spending cuts across a wide swath of programs, including Medicaid, food and farm aid and eliminating subsidies for Amtrak and airline flights to small cities.
But a budget is only a nonbinding framework. It can promise the sky, but to actually fulfill its pledges requires follow-up legislation. When the cuts turn real, lawmakers tend to lose their nerve, even some of the hardiest tea party conservatives. Virtually none of the bold promises of the Ryan budget have come to pass.
“Cutting spending is hard. Easy in theory, hard in practice,” Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, says of some recent votes. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Less than two months after Congress passed a budget deal Ryan negotiated with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., it reversed course in February and repealed a modest cut to inflation increases for military pensioners under age 62.
Lawmakers beat a hasty retreat in the face of an uproar from veterans groups. Ryan and only 18 other House Republicans voted to stand by the cut. Similarly, a hard-won law aimed at reforming the government’s flawed flood insurance program was largely reversed earlier this year after affected homeowners complained.
As in years past, the GOP plan is boldest when it promises big cuts to massive benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Bills that would actually do it — by, say, transforming Medicare into a voucher-like program for future retirees — have yet to be written, much less see a vote.
Republicans have missed opportunities, however, to fulfill other, politically less toxic, promises in Ryan’s budgets.
An example: After sticking with his deal with Murray for next year, Ryan in 2016 would cut domestic- agency operating budgets sharply and use the proceeds to beef up the military.
Even if Republicans add control of the Senate to their House majority next November, that still is unlikely to happen. House Republicans tried big cuts in domestic-agency spending bills last year only to see them stall out. The very first one GOP leaders had to pull from the floor after rank-and-file Republicans balked at its cuts to house programs, transportation and community development grants and Amtrak.
“With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said at the time. Money later was added back.
To be sure, Democrats and President Barack Obama also have played an outsize role in preventing Republicans from carrying out many of the spending cuts proposed by Ryan and his conservative “young gun” cohorts.