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Paul Ryan's budget: Even more austerity

The House Republican's 2015 plan is mostly old hat. But it includes even deeper cuts to domestic discretionary programs.
Rep. Paul Ryan speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., March 6, 2014.
Rep. Paul Ryan speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., March 6, 2014.

Paul Ryan's 2015 budget is mostly more of the same.

The House Republican budget chair has revived his old proposals to turn Medicare into a voucher program; block-grant funding for Medicaid and food stamps and hand the reins over to the states; and pass other sweeping reforms that would dramatically reduce the role of federal government, increase costs for seniors, and cut programs for low-income Americans. These are all changes the House GOP has pushed before. 

But there's one area where Ryan has gone significantly further than before in making cuts.

His new budget would cut spending on domestic discretionary programs by $790 billion through 2024. That's cutting even more than his budget last year—imposing domestic discretionary reductions that are about 7% deeper by the end of the decade, according to estimates from Joel Friedman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

What would these cuts actually mean? Ryan offers some specifics: He would end loan modifications to low-income, distressed homeowners facing foreclosure; eliminate Pell Grants for students who are less than half time; and reduce block grants for economically underdeveloped communities, among other changes.

These kinds of changes are unlikely to attract as much attention as Ryan's entitlement plans. But as sequestration has shown, domestic austerity has very real consequences for ordinary Americans.  

Ryan's budget is unlikely to even come up for a vote in the Senate, where Democratic leaders say they simply want to abide by the two-year budget agreement brokered by Ryan and Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington.

But House Republicans seem determined to use his budget to reaffirm fiscal priorities in the run-up to the 2014 midterm elections. They are expected to vote as soon as next week on the plan.

Ryan's proposed overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid has typically attracted the most attention, and that's the message many congressional Republicans like to focus on: Discretionary cuts are nice but not enough, and we really need to go after entitlement spending. As Ryan writes in his 2015 budget, "In the past few years, Congress has achieved some modest spending restraint, primarily by reducing discretionary spending. But Washington hasn’t done nearly enough to make a serious dent in the debt."

But Ryan's actual budget continues to pile on the discretionary cuts on the domestic side. As in last year's budget, it's partly to help offset major hikes to defense spending. Ryan's 2015 plan would increase defense spending by $480 billion by 2024.

His 2015 budget goes even further to cut domestic programs to achieve his goal of a balanced budget in 10 years. As Ryan notes, the Congressional Budget Office has revised its forecast for the deficit from $6.3 trillion to $7.3 trillion in the next decade, largely because of an economic recovery that's been more sluggish than expected. That means that to balance the budget in 10 years—the goal that's become a rallying cry for House Republicans—Ryan needs $1 trillion in additional savings. 

To make his numbers add up, Ryan relied on a few different manuevers. He counts new savings from the accelerated withdrawal from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on President Obama's new timeline. He also relies on a controversial mechanism called "dynamic scoring," assuming there will be additional revenue generated by the deficit reduction in his own budget. But he relies on the new domestic cuts to get him across the finish line.

"He has to triple down," says Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget. Goldwein points out that domestic discretionary spending would be 22% lower under Ryan's new budget than under sequestration.