On Ryan budget plan, Wonkblog shines

WashPost's crew stands above a generally middling performance by the press

On Tuesday, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, unveiled his umpteenth budget plan of the last few years. The details in these proposals are tweaked in response to the imperatives of the moment—this one was crafted to meet a pledge to “balance the federal budget within a decade”—but in terms of philosophy and priorities, each is largely similar to the last.

But while reporters across Washington have plenty of experience writing about Ryan’s budget agenda, there’s still noticeable variation in the quality of the coverage. And some basic aspects keep getting missed in that coverage.

This week, the Wonkbloggers at The Washington Post surpassed the generally middling accounts in the rest of the press, offering incisive, wide-ranging coverage that made clear that the journalists there had actually read the Ryan plan, rather than relying on talking points—and they’d also read just about everything else written about it, and extracted the most useful points.

As for the rest of the coverage—the AP’s Andrew Taylor, at least, provided a clear, readable account that presented the different policies advocated by both parties. Taylor also included the important piece of context that “the latest Ryan plan generally resembles prior ones.”

Compare that to the way The Wall Street Journal’s Damien Paletta described the plan:

Republican budget standard-bearer Paul Ryan on Tuesday offered his party’s most provocative fiscal framework in years, calling for Medicare and Medicaid overhauls and new limits on defense spending not previously endorsed by party leaders.

The Medicare and Medicaid proposals could have been described just as accurately as same old, same old, or warmed-over ideas from the past.

Jeremy W. Peters and Jonathan Weisman neatly captured the chasm between the two parties in their New York Times account, which observed, “in many ways, the two parties seemed to be working in parallel universes.”

But as is often the case with The Times, news that matters to readers was buried or rendered bloodlessly, as Peters and Weisman did here in summarizing the health care aspects of the Ryan plan. They wrote:

It would repeal the health care overhaul of 2009, eliminate the subsidized insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion that make up the core of the law, and turn Medicare into a system of private insurance plans financed by federal vouchers.

While balanced and accurate, the last point is hardly rendered in a way that conveys what the change to vouchers (or “premium support,” as Ryan prefers) would mean. The shift in who pays would put health care out of the reach of older Americans who are not wealthy enough to pay for what the insurance would not cover.

And it would have been better to move up this important point about dueling views on budgets:

Neither party’s budget will become law. They are merely statements of policy priorities. But they will form the basis for any negotiations to reach what lawmakers hope will be a broader compromise on fiscal and economic issues that will end the cycle of passing stopgap budgets.

The Los Angeles Times’s report by Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli, who wrote from Washington, seems naïve:

Republicans revived plans to overhaul Medicare, slash the social safety net for the poor and bolster defense—all while lowering corporate and individual tax rates to no more than 25%.

The Ryan blueprint promises to achieve the party’s ambitious goal of balancing spending and revenue in 10 years, a once-unimaginable accomplishment.

“Overhaul” is an excellent word, more neutral than “reform,” which is how Ryan describes his plan. But in this case “overhaul” fails to capture the essence of Ryan’s Medicare plan, which is to end Medicare as a universal healthcare plan for older and disabled Americans and replace it with fixed payment. Those details do get mentioned in the LAT piece—in the closing paragraphs.

And as for that “once-unimaginable accomplishment” of balancing the budget in a decade, the LAT writers do wryly note that “Ryan also counts taxes and savings from the president’s healthcare law, while promising to repeal it.” But they don’t capture just how much budgetary hand-waving Ryan relies on to achieve that goal—or pause to consider whether it should be a top goal at all. Nor do they, like most others, note that the Ryan plan lacks a lot of specifics, what Robert Reich, the Clinton-era Labor secretary calls “magic asterisks.”

At the Post’s Wonkblog, meanwhile, Evan Soltas provided a wide-ranging, link-heavy roundup that showed evidence of actually reading and analyzing the plan. A useful chart by Dylan Matthews shows where Ryan would most aggressively swing the budget ax (watch out, Medicaid).

And a post by blog chieftain Ezra Klein on “Five huge things we still don’t know about Paul Ryan’s budget” stated plainly what many news reports missed, or at least failed to emphasize, about the vagaries in the latest Ryan proposal.

Klein writes that:

Making matters more difficult is that Ryan’s tax-reform targets—which have been downgraded in this budget to mere “goals”— are deeply implausible, requiring, in the estimation of experts I’ve spoken to, at least $5 trillion in offsets. If Ways and Means cheats by passing a tax reform that is, in reality, a large tax cut, suddenly Ryan’s budget might actually be a huge deficit-buster.

And later adds:

…much of Ryan’s budget boils down to, “trust me,” or at least, “trust the House Republican Conference.” Without the details on tax reform, there’s no way for us to verify that the tax and spending sides of the budget really add up.

The downside to the Wonkblog’s strong work? Much of it never appears in the print version of The Washington Post

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , , ,