'Core Constitutional Roles' Like Job Training, Farm Subsidies, and Health Insurance


House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's fiscal plan "disavows the relentless government spending, taxing, and borrowing that are leading America, right at this moment, toward a debt-fueled economic crisis and the demise of America's exceptional promise." Instead it lays out "a path to prosperity–by limiting government to its core constitutional roles, keeping America's promises to seniors, and unleashing the genius of America's workers, investors, and entrepreneurs." From this I gather that Ryan thinks sending retirees a check every month and paying for their health care are among the federal government's "core constitutional roles." Judging from the programs that Ryan wants to cut or consolidate rather than eliminate, so are a lot of other activities that one would be hard pressed to locate under any of Congress' enumerated powers, including medical coverage for poor people, agricultural subsidies, college scholarships, and job training.

Ryan is on firmer ground when he says "the first responsibility of the federal government is to provide for the defense of the nation." But that should not mean that anything labeled "defense" gets a free pass. One of the plan's notable weaknesses is its failure to question the premise that defending the nation requires the U.S. government to spend as much on military programs as the rest of the world combined—and more today in real terms than at the height of the Cold War. Instead Ryan endorses Defense Secretary Robert Gates' $178 billion in proposed "savings," $100 billion of which would be "reinvested in higher military priorities," leaving just $78 billion in cuts over five years from a budget that totals about $700 billion annually. Just as Republicans don't think President Obama should be able to shield domestic spending from scrutiny by calling it an "investment," Democrats should not let Republicans get away with the same trick when it comes to military spending. But since Ryan's Pentagon proposal is essentially the same as Obama's, and Democrats in any case are traditionally afraid of seeming soft on defense, we are not likely to see fiscal counterproposals that are heavier on military cuts.

I'll have more to say about Ryan's plan (including its strong points) in my column tomorrow.