Paul Ryan, Statesman

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Photo: Congressman Paul Ryan

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Congressman Paul Ryan made the case for a compromise to end the government shutdown, address the approaching debt limit, and start down the path to long-term fiscal sanity. Our government may be in the midst of a crisis, but Ryan also sees opportunity—there is something to be gained for both Republicans and Democrats. Today, the Washington Post ran an approving editorial of their own, adding to the growing momentum behind Ryan’s proposal.

To understand what Ryan is proposing, and why it might work, it helps to recall how we got here: the Budget Control Act of 2011 gave us what is now known as The Sequester—automatic, across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending (including defense) designed to be politically unacceptable to both Republicans and Democrats. No lasting budget deal was reached, and in March of this year, budget sequestration kicked in. The political take-away is this: even before the federal government began shutting down last week, both Democrats and Republicans were unhappy about how the government was spending money.

It is with that in mind that Paul Ryan lays out the basic premise of proposed compromise. This from his Wall Street Journal op-ed:

If Mr. Obama decides to talk [to Republicans in Congress], he’ll find that we actually agree on some things. For example, most of us agree that gradual, structural reforms are better than sudden, arbitrary cuts. For my Democratic colleagues, the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act are a major concern. And the truth is, there’s a better way to cut spending. We could provide relief from the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act in exchange for structural reforms to entitlement programs.

Democrats get something they want (relief from “artificially low” sequester-level discretionary spending) and Republicans get something they want (a first step toward entitlement and tax reform.) In the meantime, America gets a reprieve from this corrosive pattern of governance-by-crisis and a first step toward long-term fiscal health. Notably absent in Ryan’s plan is the repeal or defunding Obamacare, which would be off the table for the time being.

Expectations for what such a compromise could achieve should be modest, Ryan warns, but the opportunity is real:

This isn’t a grand bargain. For that, we need a complete rethinking of government’s approach to helping the most vulnerable, and a complete rethinking of government’s approach to health care. But right now, we need to find common ground. We need to open the federal government. We need to pay our bills today—and make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow. So let’s negotiate an agreement to make modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code.

The Washington Post editorial agrees:

This is what both sides should be talking about. Unreformed entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, will drive the country deeper and deeper into debt, as a recent Congressional Budget Office analysis showed; meanwhile, Congress and Mr. Obama have agreed to unsustainably deep cuts in all other spending, including defense, education, parks and many other programs. Mr. Ryan says some of those cuts could be undone in exchange for reforms to Medicare and Social Security, including some that Mr. Obama included in his budget. There should be common ground.

For Congressman Ryan’s proposal to come to fruition, a great many things must happen. It’s hardly a sure thing. But for the first time in far too long, there seems to be momentum behind a plan that is not political poison to one side or the other. In short, we’re seeing something that has been in very short supply these days; we’re seeing statesmanship out of Washington.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. Since 2005, Mr. White has been coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society: a three week seminar on Catholic social teaching, with an emphasis on the thought of Blessed John Paul II, which takes place every summer in Kraków, Poland. He studied politics at the University of Dallas and philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He is a graduate of the St. Patrick's Evangelisation School in London, England.

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