Last year, the federal budget fight made front-page news. At the center of national debate was whether the deficit was dooming our economy (it wasn't), or whether Planned Parenthood was the key to reducing the deficit (again, not so much). The heated debate brought us to the brink of a government shutdown.
This year, the budget push-and-pull is flying under the radar—at least for the time being. Neither the budget proposed by House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) last month, nor the similarly drastic plan suggested by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) on Wednesday has any hope of passing, but their goals will undoubtedly shape the agenda of the 2012 election. And that's a scary thought.
Under Rep. Ryan's plan, the House Ways & Means committee is instructed to cut the deficit by $53 billion between 2013 and 2022. On the chopping block? Health care subsidies for families earning up to $90,000 a year—some 350,000 people [PDF]. Child care and other services for 4.4 million children. Transportation services for almost 1 million disabled people. Meals On Wheels and other home-based services for 1.7 million senior citizens. A 17 percent cut to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps (that's $133 billion in cuts). The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown that, depending on when the cuts began, between 8 and 10 million people would be cut from the SNAP program under this proposal. The Ryan budget would also end Medicare as we know it, replacing it with a set of subsidized insurance plans. These cuts would clear the way for a $3 billion tax cut for corporations and rich people.
Sen. Toomey's plan isn't so different from Ryan's (though it would leave Medicare virtually untouched), but he did offer a tone-deaf assessment of the American economy Wednesday: People "who really need help" in America make up a "small segment of our society," he said, echoing Mitt Romney, who said he was "not concerned with the very poor," but rather the "90, 95 percent of Americans" who are middle-class and struggling. When will Republicans realize that one in three Americans are either poor or near-poor? When will they get the memo that 49 million of us are living in poverty?
Apparently not before the 2012 election. These bills won't see the light of day—Obama has vowed to veto them—but the sentiment will be at the center of the GOP's election strategy. Like President Obama's doomed Buffett Rule, the function of these budget proposals are less about passing legislation than about drawing a line in the sand and outlining a value system for voters. But the GOP may be in the process of alienating its own allies. Fifty-six percent of Republicans oppose changes to Medicare. Catholic bishops have denounced the budget as failing to meet their "moral criteria," publicly deeming these cuts "unjustified and wrong." Even most of the Senate Republicans on the appropriations committee are siding with the president, and voters in general frown upon the brinkmanship of a shutdown threat. If this is how Republicans plan to shape their vision in 2012, it may be a tough sell.