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How Supposed Fiscal Hawks Block Deficit Reduction

David Callahan

It is always nice when a major newspaper points out one of the most obvious facts in Washington today: Which is that the main stumbling block to deficit reduction lies on the right, where ideologues won't give an inch on taxes and thus doom any realistic compromise to reduce the deficit -- compromise that must include a combination of spending cuts and additional revenue. 

In other words, it is precisely the people who complain loudest about rising debt who most obstruct any solution to this problem. 

This is the takeaway of a long Washington Post piece on Representative Paul Ryan by Lori Montgomery:

Over the past two years, as others labored to bring Democrats and Republicans together to tackle the nation’s $16 trillion debt, Ryan sat on the sidelines, glumly predicting their efforts were doomed to fail because they strayed too far from his own low-tax, small-government vision.

As a member of an independent debt commission in 2010, Ryan voted against a bipartisan plan to cut borrowing by $4 trillion over the next decade by raising taxes as well as cutting spending. Through much of 2011, he insisted publicly that a “grand bargain” on the budget was impossible, even as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) pursued a deal with President Obama. And Ryan asked Boehner not to name him to the congressional “supercommittee” that took a final stab at bipartisan compromise last fall.

As chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan did draft a blueprint for wiping out deficits by 2040. And he has earned wide praise for tackling Medicare, the nation’s biggest budget problem, despite the political risk.

But as Washington braces for another push after the election to solve the nation’s budget problems, independent budget analysts, Democrats and some Republicans say Ryan has done more to burnish his conservative credentials than to help bridge the yawning political divide that stands as the most profound barrier to action.

“If you start with the premise, as Ryan does, that our current path is unsustainable, then you have to be willing to do something about it,” said Robert L. Bixby of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, which champions lower deficits. “Is it more important to prevent the debt from rising or to stick with your principles of lower taxes? So far, Ryan has chosen the purist route.” . . . 

“His approach — my way or the highway — is precisely what’s wrong with this town. It’s the triumph of ideology,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who served with Ryan on the independent fiscal commission chaired by Democrat Erskine B. Bowles and former Republican senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. “The hard reality is, given the fact that we have divided government, both sides have to compromise in order to achieve a result. And Paul has refused to do that.”

What is true about Paul Ryan is true about many other conservatives in Washington: Ideological purity is more important than deficit reduction, plain and simple. 

No big surprises there. Anyone who thinks that conservatives are serious about deficit reduction must have slept through a few decades of history -- missing Reagan's run-up of the national debt and then, more recently, George W. Bush's spectacular feat of turning budget surpluses into deficits and piling a few more trillion dollars onto the national debt. Both presidents put the right's principle of lower taxes above the principle of fiscal sanity. 

Strangely, polls show that many voters still don't get it. One of the few issues where Mitt Romney holds an advantage over President Obama is the deficit, with Americans saying he'd do a better job of getting the U.S. fiscal house in order. 

But if Romney were really serious about the deficit, he would have chosen a different running mate -- somebody who is part of the solution, not the problem, and would push for a fiscal compromise once the GOP was back in the White House.