It was tempting to dismiss Mitt Romney's hard-right turn during the GOP primaries as calculated pandering. In the general election – as one of his top advisers famously suggested – Romney would simply shake the old Etch A Sketch and recast himself as the centrist who governed Massachusetts. But with the selection of vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, the shape-shifting Romney has locked into focus – cementing himself as the frontman for the far-right partisans responsible for Washington's gridlock.
There is no longer any ambiguity about the path that Romney would pursue as president, because it's the same trajectory charted by Ryan, the architect of the House GOP's reactionary agenda since the party's takeover in 2010. "Picking Ryan as vice president outlines the future of the next four or eight years of a Romney administration," GOP power broker Grover Norquist exulted in August. "Ryan has outlined a plan that has support in the Republican House and Senate. You have a real sense of where Romney's going." In fact, Norquist told party activists back in February, the true direction of the GOP is being mapped out by congressional hardliners. All the Republicans need to realize their vision, he said, is a president "with enough working digits to handle a pen."
The GOP legislation awaiting Romney's signature isn't simply a return to the era of George W. Bush. From abortion rights and gun laws to tax giveaways and energy policy, it's far worse. Measures that have already sailed through the Republican House would roll back clean-air protections, gut both Medicare and Medicaid, lavish trillions in tax cuts on billionaires while raising taxes on the poor, and slash everything from college aid to veteran benefits. In fact, the tenets of Ryan Republicanism are so extreme that they even offend the pioneers of trickle-down economics. "Ryan takes out the ax and goes after programs for the poor – which is the last thing you ought to cut," says David Stockman, who served as Ronald Reagan's budget director. "It's ideology run amok."
And Romney has now adopted every letter of the Ryan agenda. Take it from Ed Gillespie, senior adviser to the campaign: "If the Ryan budget had come to his desk as president," Gillespie said of Romney, "he would have signed it, of course."
A look at the bills that Republicans have passed since they took control of the House in 2010 offers a clear blueprint of the agenda that a Romney administration would be primed to establish:
Republicans in Congress have repeatedly put ideology before creating jobs. For more than a year, they've refused to put President Obama's jobs bill up for a vote, even though projections show it would create nearly 2 million jobs without adding a penny to the deficit. The reason? The $447 billion bill would be entirely paid for through a surtax on millionaires.
In addition, the Republicans' signature initiative last year – the debt-ceiling standoff – was a jobs-killer, applying the brakes to the economic recovery. From February through April 2011, the economy had been adding 200,000 jobs a month. But during the uncertainty created by the congressional impasse, job creation was cut in half for every month the standoffcontinued. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, the immediate spending cuts required by the debt-ceiling compromise are likely to shrink the economy by $43 billion this year, killing nearly 323,000 jobs.
What Ryan markets as his "Path to Prosperity" would make things even worse: The draconian cuts in his latest budget, according to the EPI, would put an additional drag on the economy, destroying another 4.1 million jobs by 2014.
GOD, GUNS AND GAYS
The retrograde social agenda laid out in recent GOP legislation represents a full-scale assault on fundamental American rights. Last year, the House passed a bill that would broadly prohibit women from purchasing insurance plans that cover abortion. The so-called Protect Life Act would also allow hospitals to refuse a dying woman an abortion that would save her life. Ryan himself co-sponsored legislation that would have made it impossible for impoverished victims of rape and incest to receive abortions unless their assault met a narrow definition of "forcible rape." Under the bill's language, for instance, federal abortion coverage would be denied to a 12-year-old girl impregnated by a 40-year-old man, unless she could prove she fought back.
When they weren't trying to force women to birth babies for rapists, the GOP House was voting to make it easier for would-be criminals to carry concealed firearms. In the first major gun legislation passed after their colleague Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, the House sided with her attempted murderer, passing an NRA-backed measure that would have undercut state limits on concealed-carry permits. Under the legislation, authorities in a state that prohibits drunk people from carrying a hidden weapon, for instance, would be barred from arresting an armed inebriate if he had a permit from another state without such a restriction. The bill, said Dennis Henigan of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, would "make it easier for the Jared Loughners of the world to pack heat on our streets and in our communities."
The GOP's love of guns is rivaled only by its contempt for gay Americans – even those who take up arms in defense of their country. Unable to block the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Republicans in the House approved riders in the Defense appropriations bill to undermine the rights of gays in the armed forces. An amendment introduced by Rep. Todd Akin – Ryan's co-sponsor on "forcible rape" – sought to prohibit military facilities from being used to hold gay weddings, and to bar military chaplains from presiding over such ceremonies. Another House rider banned the military from offering medical, pension and death benefits to the spouses of gay soldiers.
DRILL AND POLLUTE
In thrall to dirty-energy interests, House Republicans have held more than 300 votes to hamstring the EPA, roll back environmental protections and open up sensitive public land to drilling – offering polluters a virtual license to kill. "This is, without doubt, the most anti-environmental Congress in history," said Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy Committee.
Under the Republicans, the House has voted to ban the EPA from placing limits on climate-warming pollution, to reverse new fuel standards projected to slash dependence on foreign oil and save Americans $1.7 trillion at the pump, and to end standards signed into law by President Bush that would phase out wasteful, high-wattage incandescent light bulbs. Even more reckless, the House voted to block limits on deadly mercury emissions – a move that federal scientists calculate would result in 20,000 premature deaths – and drop safeguards on cement manufacturing that would kill another 12,500 Americans and lead to thousands of avoidable heart attacks.
In February, over the objections of the State Department, the House voted to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport toxic tar sands from Canada across the Midwest's largest and most vulnerable supply of drinking water. In that same vote, the House returned to the great dream of the Bush era, voting to permit the oil industry to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In an even more sweeping move, the House passed a bill to block all new major regulations until the nation's unemployment rate falls to six percent – a measure that would choke off not only new environmental safeguards, but also the new limits on Wall Street recklessness required under Dodd-Frank.
In June, the house approved a raft of amendments blocking Obama's executive directives on immigration reform. The legislation would prevent the administration from prioritizing the deportation of violent criminals over law-abiding immigrants, and put Homeland Security back in the business of deporting the undocumented spouses of American citizens. The House even found a way to merge its dirty-energy agenda with its anti-immigrant stance, passing a "border bill" that bars enforcement of 16 key environmental laws – including the Endangered Species Act – on federal land within 100 miles of the Mexican border. The bill is a sop to the Minuteman crowd, who don't want to contend with environmental rules as they erect electrified fences to keep out immigrants. But the measure is so broadly written that it also applies to the Canadian border, opening up places like Glacier National Park in Montana to bulldozers. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican from Montana, calls the bill "absolutely necessary" to secure his state from "drug dealers, human traffickers and terrorists."
In perhaps its most absurd gesture, the House GOP managed to weave together its hatred of immigrants and abortions, passing a rider that bans the government from providing abortions to immigrants in detention. The move is a brave solution in search of an actual problem: Federal agencies have never paid for such a procedure.
House Republicans have voted three times to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts – a move that would blow a $3.8 trillion hole in the budget over the next decade. In fact, the Ryan budget – twice approved by the House – goes even further, doling out another $2.5 trillion to the wealthiest Americans by reducing the tax rate on top earners from 35 to just 25 percent, lowering the corporate rate to 25 percent, and ending the alternative minimum tax, a safeguard against tax cheats.
Romney, in fact, wants to give away even more to the rich than Republicans in the House by permanently eliminating the estate tax – a proposal that alarmsr veterans of the first Bush administration. "Given the vast amounts of wealth that have accumulated at the very, very, very top, it's an odd time to be eliminating this most progressive element of the tax system," says Michael Graetz, a former deputy assistant Treasury secretary under Bush. Over a decade, Romney's gift to the nation's most fortunate families would allow their heirs to pocket at least $1 trillion (including up to $50 million for Mitt's own heirs).
Those without family fortunes, meanwhile, would see their taxes soar. Independent tax groups have concluded that the only way to replace the tax revenue lost by the proposed Ryan and Romney tax cuts would be to end tax breaks – like the one for home-mortgage interest – that directly benefit the middle class. And the poor would get the shaft: The Ryan budget slashes the Child Tax Credit, meaning that a single mother of two earning the minimum wage would watch her annual tax bill rise by more than $1,500.
Under the Ryan blueprint approved by the House and voted for by 40 GOP senators, government spending on everything that's not Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – NASA, highways, education, you name it – would be cut in half by 2022 and nearly in half again by 2050, until it stands at just 3.5 percent of the economy. As the Congressional Budget Service notes, such spending levels would be unprecedented in modern times: Since World War II, the government's discretionary spending has never fallen below eight percent of GDP.
If signed into law by President Romney, the Ryan budget would slash spending on college tuition grants by 42 percent next year and kick 1 million students out of the program. It would also gut funding for public schools, food and drug safety, basic science research, law enforcement and low-income housing. The cuts to food stamps alone would total $134 billion over the next decade. Ripping Ryan for trying to cloak his budget in Catholic doctrine, priests and faculty from Georgetown University wrote, "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ." There is one place, however, where Republicans want to increase spending: Under the most recent Ryan budget, the Pentagon would receive an extra $29 billion a year, reversing Obama's modest efforts to slow the growth of defense spending. Where would the extra cash come from? In May, the House approved a Ryan bill to replace automatic cuts to the Pentagon under the debt-ceiling agreement with $261 billion in cuts to the federal safety net. The measure would deny food stamps to 1.8 million Americans, leave 280,000 kids without school lunches and cut off health care to 300,000 poor children.
DESTROY HEALTH CARE
Republicans in the House have voted more than 30 times to repeal Obamacare – a move that would deplete the Medicare trust fund eight years early, kick 6.6 million young adults off their parents' health insurance, cost seniors $700 more on average for prescription drugs, and make it legal once again for insurance companies to charge women more than men and to rescind policies when people get sick. At the same time, repealing Obamacare would provide a massive giveback to the rich, handing over nearly $400 billion in tax revenues to those who earn above $250,000 a year.
To further boost the profits of insurance companies, the House passed a Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare, subjecting seniors to the whims of the private market. In the first year alone, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost to seniors would more than double, to $12,500 – and taxpayers would not save a dime, as private insurers pocketed the money. By 2050, as inflation took its toll, buying a policy as good as present-day Medicare would cost an 85-year-old more than $50,000. The Ryan plan would also eviscerate Medicaid by turning federal contributions to the program into lump-sum "block grants" that states can administer as they see fit. The trouble is that the grants, like Medicare vouchers, won't keep pace with soaring health care costs. In the first decade alone, the plan would bilk states out of $810 billion and deny health care to 30 million poor children, disabled Americans and seniors.
The last time a Republican presidential candidate touted an agenda to cut spending, lower taxes, boost defense and balance the budget was Ronald Reagan in 1980. Like Romney and Ryan, Reagan didn't have an actual plan for his spending cuts – they were an accounting fantasy, openly joked about as the "magic asterisk." In the end, as promised, Reagan's tax cuts went through, and the Pentagon's budget soared. But the spending cuts never materialized – so Reagan wound up tripling the debt.
If it didn't work for Reagan, says his former budget director, it would be foolish to assume Romney and Ryan can do better. "The Republican record on spending control is so abysmally bad," Stockman says, "that at this point they don't have a leg to stand on." Indeed, the last GOP administration turned $5 trillion in projected surplus into $5 trillion of new debt.
No one doubts Ryan's determination to slash the social safety net: Of the $5.3 trillion in cuts he has proposed, nearly two-thirds come from programs for the poor. But when it comes time to eviscerate the rest of the federal budget, Stockman says – funding for things like drug enforcement and public schools – Congress will "never cut those programs that deeply." In short, the rich will get their tax cuts. The poor will be left destitute. But America will be driven even deeper into debt.
That, at heart, is the twisted beauty of the plan being championed by Ryan and Romney: The higher Republicans manage to drive up the debt, the more ammunition they have in their fight to slash federal spending for the needy. And the more time they waste trumpeting their "fiscal discipline," the more the nation's infrastructure will continue to crumble around them. Squandering two full workweeks of the congressional calendar on votes to repeal Obamacare has cost taxpayers $48 million. That's nearly the same amount of money now needed to repair cracks in the Capitol itself – spending the House GOP has refused to authorize, out of anti-governmental spite. "If the House wants the dome to fall in," said Senate Appropriations chair Ben Nelson, "I hope it falls on their side." If the Republicans experience a crushing blow as a result of their hard-right agenda, of course, it won't be caused by the laws of physics – it will be delivered by the voters on Election Day.