Remember Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the Very Serious Person? Before he was his party’s nominee for vice president, and his extreme ideology became more widely understood, Ryan was the Washington media establishment’s favorite Republican. In 2011, Time magazine named him a runner-up for Person of the Year, crediting his “hard work … and possibly suicidal guts” with making him “the most influential American politician.” Ryan had built up this mythology by releasing his “Roadmap” to a balanced budget, which won accolades for wrestling with projected deficits. In truth, his plan consisted mostly of lazy hand-waving gestures about spending cuts. You can say future Congresses must cut discretionary domestic spending by some huge amount, but you’re not really showing courage unless you’re actually in office when the cuts take place, turning down cries for help from your constituents. Meanwhile, Ryan proposed big regressive tax cuts, and his most concrete proposals to limit spending would do so by ending the healthcare guarantees of Medicare and Medicaid.
Well, Ryan is still chair of the House Budget Committee, and he is trying to rebuild his brand. Whatever his goal — replace retiring Ways and Means Chair David Camp (R-Mich.), become speaker of the House, or run for president in 2016 — Ryan wants to be considered politically brave and fiscally responsible. Recently he’s even been talking about poverty. But his new “Path to Prosperity” budget blueprint for fiscal year 2015, released on Tuesday, is mostly a rehash of his old ideas. And like every Ryan budget, it’s full of right-wing hobbyhorses that would do untold damage to the environment.
Here are the five main ways Ryan’s plan would increase pollution, accelerate global warming, despoil public lands, and stymie Americans’ efforts to get out of their cars.
- Kneecapping environmental regulation. The Path to Prosperity calls for enacting bills to roll back environmental regulatory authority, especially the EPA’s planned regulations of CO2 from coal-fired power plants. The bill’s actual text devotes two of its 100 pages to whining about how President Obama hasn’t been very nice to coal companies. “Unfairly targeting the coal industry with costly and unachievable regulations will increase energy prices, disproportionately disadvantaging energy-intensive industries like manufacturing and construction, and will make life more difficult for millions of low-income and middle class families already struggling to pay their bills,” Ryan asserts. He makes no mention, naturally, of the health effects of coal-burning and extraction on low-income families, nor of the jobs created by renewable energy industries, nor of the climate crisis.
- Expanding fossil fuel use. Republicans are fond of inserting clauses to promote fossil fuel extraction into unrelated budget bills. Ryan’s budget is no exception. It refers to Republicans’ obsessive crush, Keystone XL, and other dirty energy projects, calling for legislation that “frees the many commonsense energy and water projects currently trapped in complicated bureaucratic approval processes.”
- Defunding environmental programs. Ryan would drastically cut domestic discretionary spending overall. That would affect environmental spending everywhere from the EPA to national parks and other Interior Department programs. Anything addressing climate change seems to especially irritate Ryan. As The Hill notes, “The blueprint hits spending for ‘government-wide climate-change-related activities,’ mainly through cuts to federal agencies’ funds for overseas climate-change initiatives. It also targets the administration’s clean technology and strategic climate funds, established in 2010, which provide foreign assistance to boost energy-efficient projects aimed at mitigating climate change.” The Wilderness Society complains that Ryan would also cut spending for parks, public lands, and other conservation programs.
- Reducing investment in transportation and infrastructure. Consider the well-established problem of the Highway Trust Fund shortfall. As Americans drive less and shift to more fuel-efficient cars, gas tax revenues have declined, meaning there’s less money for transportation projects, but authorized transportation spending has not declined, creating a deficit. Any rational observer would describe this as a revenue problem, not a spending problem. A technocrat’s answer would be to raise the gasoline tax, which hasn’t gone up, even to keep pace with inflation, since 1993. Not Paul Ryan. His budget’s “sensible reforms” would cut spending to match declining gas tax receipts. And it would do so with an anti-urban, anti-environment bias. He doesn’t spell out all the specific cuts he would make, but one example he gives is to eliminate all spending on Amtrak.
- Shoveling money into the pockets of Big Oil. Even as Ryan calls for a simplified tax code, he would keep market-distorting tax breaks for oil companies. The Center for American Progress writes, “His budget would … protect $45 billion in tax subsidies over 10 years to oil companies, the top five of which are already reaping $93 billion in profits from 2013 alone.” In so doing, Ryan has managed to disappoint even experienced observers of environmental politics, who hoped his supposed commitment to free-market principles would at least have an upside. “He doesn’t want to cut subsidies for oil and gas — the low-hanging fruit that we thought everyone should support,” says Athan Manuel, a lobbyist at the Sierra Club. “If you’re going to help Big Oil and not the average American, it just seems like a mean-spirited document.”
While Ryan’s budget will never pass a Democratic Senate or be signed by a Democratic president, House Republicans have voted overwhelmingly to pass his budgets in the past. It is therefore a sign of what Republicans would do if they controlled the Senate and White House.
But there is one reason to be reassured: Ryan’s policies would be enormously unpopular if enacted. “You can’t run the basic government people want at these spending levels,” says Scott Slesinger, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Remember the hysteria over closed national monuments during the federal government shutdown last year? Republicans know cutting spending on national parks wouldn’t be popular. That’s why they tried to blame Obama for the result of their own intransigence during the shutdown. If they were in charge, they’d probably chicken out on a lot of Ryan’s extreme proposals, or face electoral consequences.