If part of you clings to that vision of an America where opportunity for all is possible or if you believe that it's time to take the somewhat tarnished American Dream out of cold storage, then be prepared to be deeply disappointed -- frightened even -- by Republican Representative Paul Ryan's response to President Obama's State of the Union Address. Ryan is the newly crowned Chairman of the House Budget Committee who was given control over how the House of Representatives allocates funding. His Republican colleagues voted in January to give him unilateral, unprecedented authority to set spending limits for everything from defense to education.
I served with Rep. Ryan on the 18 member Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and learned firsthand from the personally congenial Ryan just how dark his vision of America's future is for all but the super-rich.
There is no disagreement over the fact that our economy is still a mess, and though the signs of recovery are hopeful, too many friends and family members are out of work, losing their homes to foreclosure, and feeling insecure about the future.
Many people are mad about finding themselves in such uncomfortable circumstances, and who can blame them? They didn't make the mess, after all. They didn't spend our country into record deficits. They didn't start two wars on borrowed money, and they didn't decide to give huge tax cuts to the already hugely rich. They aren't Wall Street tycoons who gambled billions of dollars on bets that caused the near collapse of our economy. And they aren't Wall Street tycoons who are still raking in the unimaginably massive paychecks and bonuses, after being bailed out by the taxpayers.
We don't know exactly what Ryan will say in his response to the president. But we do know plenty about what this self-proclaimed budget hawk has already said. He laid it all out in a document he calls "A Roadmap for America's Future." In it was his simple plan for health care reform: destroy Medicare as we know it by giving seniors a fixed dollar voucher and sending them off to find an insurance company that will cover them. That's after raising the age of Medicare eligibility. He also revives the discredited idea of privatizing Social Security and raising the retirement age. Good luck, Grandma!
He enthusiastically joined every Republican to vote to repeal the health care bill, despite the independent, non-partisan Congressional Budget Office declaring that repeal adds $230 Billion more to the deficit. "The CBO is entitled to its opinion," declared Speaker John Boehner. Dismissing the CBO is equivalent to throwing the umpire out of the baseball game and replacing him with your team's coach. But that's just exactly what the new Republican rules allow -- if they disagree with the CBO, they simply throw out the call.
Ryan and the Republicans have announced their plans to slash the budget by reducing all non-defense discretionary spending back to 2008 levels -- at best. At worst, many Republicans want to go back to 2006 levels - Bush's last budget. The Washington Post calculated that 2008 spending levels mean a 16% cut for the FBI, 13% for national parks, and more than a $1,000 cut in college Pell Grants from the current $5,500 maximum grants. My state of Illinois, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, could see a $1.3 billion cut in federal support, forcing state and local government to lay off teachers and police and firefighters.
There are big winners in Paul Ryan's "Roadmap" and you can guess who they are. He would cut taxes for the wealthy, completely eliminate the corporate income tax, and create a value added tax. According to the Tax Policy Center, his plan would raise taxes for the bottom 95 percent of American wage earners and cut taxes for the top five percent. The top 0.1 percent would see an average tax cut of $1.7 million -- every year!
In case you haven't noticed, the same big winners have been stuffing themselves with cash for the last two decades while the rest of America has been barely holding its own. The top 1 percent of Americans control 34 percent of the wealth while the bottom 90 percent (almost everyone -- get it?) control 29 percent. There is greater income inequality in the United States than in any other industrialized country. Yes, the debt is a problem that must be dealt with. To me, however, the disappearing middle class is even worse -- bad for our economy and really bad for our democracy.
Considering his zeal for propping up the super rich, I wasn't surprised when the Washington Post revealed that Budget Chairman Paul Ryan "has taken $1.4 million from banks, hedge funds, investment houses and other financial services companies." It's a two-way street between Ryan and his Wall Street pals -- but the shrinking middle class, the poor, and others who benefit from bedrock American support programs including seniors and those with disabilities just keep hitting road blocks.
The Republicans led by Ryan are determined to keep serving only their wealthy constituency and push the rest of America down a dangerous road that threatens what has long been a consensus vision of our country as the land of opportunity for all.