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The Courage of House Republicans

“They are suckers.”

That is the judgment of one cynical senior Democratic congressional aide, speaking to Politico about the House GOP plan to release the first detailed proposals to reduce entitlement spending.

“They have painted themselves into a corner.” The corner this Democratic aide is referring to is a statement by GOP House leaders. “Our budget will lead where the President has failed,” the statement reads, “and it will include real entitlement reforms so that we can have a conversation with the American people about the challenges we face and the need to chart a new path to prosperity.”

Expanding on this statement, Representative Paul Ryan was asked whether he was talking about “minor tinkering.” The House Budget Committee chairman said, “No, I think it’s important that you do comprehensive health care entitlement reform, other kinds of entitlement reform.”

The details of Ryan’s plan will be revealed later this spring. For now, I’m not sure people fully realize what an extraordinary decision this is. The majority party in the House of Representatives is willing to do what no Congress has ever done: fundamentally reform, and scale back, entitlement programs (most especially Medicare). House Republicans are willing to do this even though presidents and lawmakers who have attempted such things in the past have not only failed; they have been hammered into submission by demagogic attacks.

Conservative House members hope this moment is unlike any previous one. The argument goes like this: the old script — the American people believe in limited government in theory and big government in practice — no longer applies. Our fiscal problems are so large, a fiscal train wreck is drawing so near, and the evidence is so incontrovertible that abdication on reforming entitlement programs (which is driving our fiscal crisis) will be punished, while dealing with them in a responsible way will be rewarded. Republicans are betting that this isn’t 1995 all over again. “Mediscare” doesn’t work nearly as well during an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits.

Have we, in fact, reached an inflection point on entitlement programs? Is there a new sobriety among the citizenry when it comes to fiscal matters?

Nobody knows. My sense is that the political landscape has changed significantly on these matters. But whether it has changed enough — and whether one half of one branch of the federal government can shape and bend public opinion — is an open question. Even the strongest advocates for taking on entitlement reform know that this path is potentially perilous.

What is not in dispute is the political courage that is on display. It is unusual, to say the least, for lawmakers to risk everything on behalf of the public good.

In the December 1981 issue of the Atlantic, David Stockman, then Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, made a run at cutting the size of government, including entitlement programs. He wanted to change the habits of the political system. And he failed. “I have a new theory,” Stockman confessed to William Greider, “there are no real conservatives in Congress.”

David Stockman never met Paul Ryan and his House colleagues.



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