Senator Marco Rubio delivered a subtle message to Representative Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republican Party on Tuesday: Stop trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. It’s a sweeping change for a prominent presidential candidate from a party that has spent the last few years endorsing a document—the Ryan budget—that proposes drastic cuts to low-income programs.
Now, Rubio didn’t refute the Ryan budget explicitly. His comments came in a New York Times magazine article by Sam Tanenhaus on the reform conservatism movement. “Our debt isn’t driven by discretionary spending on poverty programs,” Rubio said in the piece. “We’re not going to balance the budget by saving money on safety-net programs.”
That’s great news—because for years, the Ryan budget has proposed doing exactly that. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the 2014 version would cut $2.9 trillion from Medicaid, Medicare and Obamacare subsidies over the next decade. In addition, he would cut another trillion dollars from mandatory spending programs. For instance, one such area is food stamps, which Ryan proposes $137 billion in cuts to over the next 10 years. This precisely an area that Rubio says will not help us balance our budget.
The Ryan budget would also cut nearly $900 billion from non-defense, discretionary spending. These are programs for infrastructure, homeland security, housing assistance, education grants and environmental protection. Some of these are safety net programs. Others are not. But none of them are drivers of our long-term debt.
Or consider sequestration. That policy cut spending on discretionary programs across the federal government nearly uniformly. The foolish approach to these cuts was supposed to drive Democrats and Republicans to the bargaining table. That eventually happened with the passage of the Ryan-Murray budget. But the majority of House Republicans opposed the budget and wanted to keep the sledgehammer cuts in place. Even so, the majority of sequestration remains, and the long-term drivers of our debt remain unsolved.
This has been the most frustrating feature of the Republican austerity agenda. Its premise has been to solve our long-term debt problems, but the solutions don’t follow the actual driver of our debt. Instead, the Ryan budget has been a thinly disguised agenda for slashing spending on safety-net programs for low-income Americans. Rubio, for his part, has proposed an anti-poverty agenda that would be deficit neutral (although his math is a bit fuzzy). Not making huge cuts to anti-poverty programs under the guise of debt fear-mongering is a low bar to pass, but it’s one in which the Republican Party has consistently failed during the Obama presidency.
Danny Vinik is a staff writer at The New Republic.