House Clears GOP Plan to Shrink Government, Balance Budget

The plan was authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The plan was authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

The House on Thursday approved the Republicans’ fiscal 2014 budget blueprint, voting 221-207 largely on partisan lines for the plan to shrink government and balance the budget by spending by $4.6 trillion less over the next decade.

The blueprint, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., calls for dramatic tax cuts, restructuring of health care programs and a modest hike in defense spending. It proposes saving $132 billion over 10 years by increasing the amount federal employees contribute to their pensions and changing pay and benefits to “better align” with the private sector. And it would draw on some of the same efficiencies being pursued under the Obama administration’s Campaign to Cut Waste, with nods to curbing improper payments and selling off unneeded real estate.

The House vote came as the Senate was taking up its version of the nonbinding budget resolution, which cleared that chamber’s Budget Committee March 14.

“We are not simply here to balance the budget because we like looking at clean spreadsheets,” Ryan said during debate on Tuesday evening. “The reason we are balancing the budget is to improve people’s lives. … We know that a debt crisis is coming. We know that it’s coming because we’ve watched what other countries have done when they continue to kick the can down the road and ignore the tough choices they need to make to get our fiscal house in order.”

A starkly contrasting view came from Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who offered an alternative proposal that would replace sequestration with a mix of targeted spending cuts and increased tax revenue to balance the budget by 2040. “We do it in a balanced way,” Van Hollen said. “We don’t do it the same time we are providing windfall tax breaks to folks at the very top. We don’t do it on the backs of other important priorities. We do it by growing the economy and asking for shared responsibility.”

Van Hollen added that what’s “astounding is to hear our Republican colleagues talk about the deficit and debt in one breath and then talk about all those tax breaks and expenditures that disproportionately benefit very wealthy people in the other breath and then say they won’t close one single tax loophole for wealthy people for the purpose of reducing the deficit… And yet they’re willing to hit Medicaid to the tune of $110 billion. They’re willing to hit the food and nutrition program by over $100 billion. They’re ready to hit transportation funding by over 15 percent in this budget window.”

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., countered that the House Democrats’ alternative plan “continues a policy of borrowing and spending and raising taxes and never gets to balance.” He defended the budget as advancing “pro-growth” tax reform. But “balancing the budget is not just about the economy,” Camp added. “It’s about critical programs like Medicare and Social Security and the benefits they provide to millions of Americans. Social Security is already spending more money than it brings in, and the Medicare trust fund is going broke fast.”

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., ranking member on Ways and Means, called the Republican budget “ tone deaf, the result of blind ideology” that proposes to cut taxes to balance the budget without specifying how. “What we come up with on the Republican side is a mirage—and, I think, a dangerous one,” Levin said. “Under their budget, the top rate is to be reduced from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. The alternative minimum tax will be repealed. The corporate tax rate will be cut from 35 to 25 percent. But you won’t find one syllable in the Republican budget on how all these tax cuts will be paid for.”

The House voted to reject the Van Hollen budget as well as a separate budget written by the Congressional Black Caucus, which failed 105-305. It voted on a budget from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which failed 84-327. It voted on a budget by the Republican Study Committee, which failed with an unusual tally, 102 voting yes, 131 voting no, 171 voting present and 28 not voting. The chamber also took a test vote on the Senate’s committee-passed budget plan, which failed 154-261.

Employee unions blasted the Ryan budget. Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, sent a letter to lawmakers taking offense at, among other things, Ryan’s comment that his proposed reforms “reflect the growing frustration of workers across the country at the privileged rules enjoyed by government employees.”

On the contrary, Kelley said, “some of the ‘privileges’ afforded them have been a pay freeze for over 27 months and the possibility of several furlough days for the rest of this fiscal year,” adding that “most agencies are already stretched thin in both people and supplies.” Both Ryan’s budget cuts and his tone, she added, “will make it more and more difficult to attract and retain good workers in the federal government.”

The Ryan budget is “extraordinarily irresponsible,” the American Federation of Government Employees said in an earlier statement. “Cutting 10 percent of federal jobs through attrition makes absolutely no sense,” AFGE said. “If all 20 aircraft mechanics at an Air Force base retire, should the Defense Department be prohibited from replacing any of them? What would the government do under the Ryan budget? Stop repairing aircraft? Or replace them with private contractors, who are both costlier and less accountable than federal employees?”

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