Ryan faces tough budget choice

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Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.

Name the Republican politician facing the biggest loss if next week’s South Carolina primary ends up with a first or second place finish for Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

It’s Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

On Capitol Hill — far from the television cameras focused on the presidential horse race — Ryan is in a real-life political crisis as he tries to impose his leadership on the Republican majority in the House.

The single biggest test of his command and control is corralling members of his conference to produce an official GOP budget.

Ryan needs to at least draft a budget reflecting his party’s spending priorities. Without that fig leaf, he risks going into the history books as the rare speaker who, in the honeymoon of his first year, did not propose a budget, much less pass one.

That scenario also opens the door to Ryan being responsible for allowing a government shutdown to hang over a presidential election.

Keep in mind that Congress’ central function, as devised by the Founding Fathers, was the “power of the purse,” exercising power over the federal budget.

Ryan’s problem is rooted in the success of Trump and Cruz, the most anti-establishment Republicans in the presidential primaries. The populist, right-wing grassroots of the party, represented by the House Freedom Caucus and leading conservative media figures, is energized by the success of anti-establishment candidates in the GOP primaries.

On the campaign trail, Trump and Cruz are calling for true conservatives to shun any budget deal that does not reduce spending and the size of government. That would include the budget deal struck with President Obama by Ryan’s predecessor, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

At the debates and in their stump speeches, several Republican presidential candidates consistently curse the GOP majority in Congress as traitors for making that deal with Obama. They win cheers and votes by insisting on lower spending, smaller government and balanced budgets right now. It is also true that they never say what cuts they would make to the budget.

Ryan knows this game. He was one of only 79 House Republicans to vote for a $1 trillion short-term budget deal brokered last October by Boehner with Obama and congressional Democrats. With a few tax extenders, Ryan supported a similar long-term spending bill deal in December. But he has yet to author a budget revealing spending priorities and get it through Congress.

The Republican contenders for the presidential nomination, as well as conservative talk radio hosts, call the deal a capitulation to Democrats and a betrayal of conservative principles. That has led hard-line House conservatives to conclude that they will gain politically by not passing any type of spending measure in an election year.

This is the same extreme political logic that led to past government shutdowns. House Republicans said that their voters, the people who elected them in districts gerrymandered to be solidly Republican, wanted no compromises; they wanted smaller government and to block all of Obama’s initiatives.

That strategy proved a liability in national polls and has led Republican congressional leaders to turn away from the far-right of the party for fear of permanently damaging the GOP brand.

That is why Ryan is pushing House Republicans to become a party of “proposition not opposition.” But Ryan is reluctant to confront members of his caucus who see political gain in simply condemning big government.

In addition, a big part of the problem facing Ryan springs from his promises to the right-wing Freedom Caucus when he sought to reassure them when he took the top job in the House.

To give the hard-liners more control over House legislation in the post-Boehner era, Ryan pledged to pass all twelve House appropriations bills on time and through “regular order” in an election year. That has left Ryan with his hands tied as he tries to deal with the budget committee chairs.

Now Ryan is trying to stave off budget failure by dumping all over the president’s final budget request to Congress. Last week, House leaders took the extraordinary step of announcing they won’t even hold hearings on the Obama budget. Ryan could only stand on the sidelines for fear of being run over by his own team. 

As The New York Times editorial board noted last week, “Their decision is more than a break with tradition. It is a new low in Republican efforts to show disdain for Mr. Obama, which disrespects the presidency and, in the process, suffocates debate and impairs governing.”

This political drama is full of irony.

Just four years ago, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tapped Ryan to be his vice-presidential running mate in order to reassure conservatives. Ryan had credibility with conservatives because the budget he proposed when he was Chairman of the House Budget Committee included strong cuts and even making Medicare into a voucher program.

Now the party has drifted so far to the right that Ryan, their one-time budget warrior, is being branded insufficiently conservative as he tries to get Republicans to agree on any Republican budget.

In a presidential election year where the electoral map favors Democrats, the last thing Republicans need is a high-stakes display of incompetence and dysfunction by their own leaders in Congress.

If the GOP majority in Congress can’t govern themselves long enough to pass their own budget, how can they be trusted with the White House?