LIKE BILL Murray’s character in “Groundhog Day,’’ Representative Paul Ryan appears condemned to repeat the same experiences over and over again. When Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, unveiled his House budget proposal last week, you could almost hear strains of “I Got You Babe’’ — the song that awakens Murray day after day after day. And like the good people of Punxsutawney, Penn., the masses on Capitol Hill seem oblivious to his plight as he patiently treads the same ground one more time.
Budget resolutions are required by law, though the Senate hasn’t passed one in years. Big and unwieldy, they provide a tax and spending roadmap for legislation to come. Yet budgets from the White House and Congress are often filled with vague policy proposals, savings from wishful “efficiency improvements,’’ and unrealistic economic assumptions. There’s still plenty of that to go around; but Ryan changed the business-as-usual approach last year with bold and detailed plans to restore solvency to Medicare and Social Security.
Whether you loved his ideas or hated them, they opened the door to bipartisan budget negotiations with the White House and to the congressional supercommittee. Both came up short, but they were the closest Washington has come to meaningful budget reform since the 1997 budget act.
Now Ryan has turned his attention to tax reform.
For decades, Social Security and Medicare were universally feared as the fatal “third rail’’ of American politics. Not so today. The willingness of Ryan and others to take on these issues weakened the hand of demagogues as the public has slowly become more receptive to serious debate and cognizant of the need for reforms. The tax code, however, has been a minefield. And it still is.
Where the two entitlement programs drew the attention of a single, but very important, constituency of retirees, the intricacies of the tax code cater to the “special interests’’ in all of us: homeowners, investors, teachers, gamblers, and farmers, with special provisions for mortgage interest, dividends, school supplies, gambling losses, ethanol, and more.
Tax reform may be the most thankless task in America.
Ryan’s budget reduces the number of tax brackets from six to just two - 10 and 25 percent. He eliminates the alternative minimum tax, the 1970s-era regime designed to tax millionaires that now hits hundreds of thousands of filers. The corporate tax rate would drop to 25 percent while eliminating reams of preferences and tax credits. Even with the lower rates, the system is designed to collect about 19 percent of GDP in taxes, consistent with the average during the ’80s and ’90s.
Getting rid of targeted deductions and credits will be a battle. But businesses and taxpayers alike have to decide whether they want to be treated like lab rats, with a tax code designed to manipulate their behavior, or choose lower rates for all instead.
True to form, the White House response reads like a scene we’ve watched a dozen times. They accused Republicans of trying to end Medicare, even though Ryan’s plan was developed with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. Condemning tax reform is a bit tougher, since the president has paid it so much lip service lately. So he professes shock that the Republicans refuse to raise taxes.
The public’s eyes rightly glaze over. Airwaves fill with the same critics, making the same arguments, countered by the same responses. As in “Groundhog Day,’’ the patterns may be the same, but subtle changes matter; the path we take will change history. Tax reform or none? Health care choices or mandates? More or less spending?
Indeed, the differences in the two approaches are stark. Over 10 years, Obama’s budget spends $5 trillion more, and saddles the country with an additional $3 trillion in debt. The president’s budget pushes spending to the unprecedented peacetime level of 25 percent of GDP in 2019. And that’s the fundamental question Ryan wants the public to ask: Should the federal government control a quarter of our economy?
Despite the mind-numbing repetition of endlessly revisiting the same day, Murray’s character did a little better with each new go around. Sometimes the characters swirling around him appreciated his efforts; sometimes not. But the incremental changes built character - and revealed it - on the way to building the perfect day.
Ryan’s budget is far from perfect, but this year’s edition brings us a step closer to an honest debate about tax reform, something America hasn’t had in nearly 30 years. Ryan has been slapped before, and he knows it may happen again. But no matter what tomorrow brings, he seems determined to make the most of the hand he’s been dealt.
John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.