Budget realities, now and later

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 22, 2016, before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department's fiscal 2017 budget request. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican’s aren’t just split over whom to nominate for president. They’re also divided on the federal budget debate.

But while House Speaker Paul Ryan says he doesn’t want a brokered GOP convention to put him at the top of the party’s White House ticket, he is pushing for the practical compromise needed to avoid a protracted — and futile — fight over federal spending during this presidential election year.

That makes Rep. Ryan persona non grata to some conservatives justifiably frustrated by the seemingly permanent process of kicking the fiscal responsibility can down the road as the record national debt soars to ever-riskier heights.

So what The New York Times bills as “the hard-line House Freedom Caucus” is raising a ruckus over the $3.9 trillion spending plan released by the chamber’s Budget Committee — with Speaker Ryan’s support — last month.

Though that proposal limits appropriations increases to small amounts, it apparently could be rejected by a majority of GOP House members as too expensive.

Rep. Ryan conceded that vote-counting factor for his first budget as speaker:

“We want to pass a budget. We believe it’s very important for budgeting reasons. I used to write budgets here. But I promise in this speakership that we’re not going to have a top-down, cram-it-down-people’s-throat kind of leadership. We’re going to make decisions as a team.”

Mr. Ryan, however, has acknowledged that he doesn’t yet have the votes.

The speaker is not just under figurative fire from the right for wanting to spend too much. Many Democrats have decried the budget plan as not spending enough. They’re sounding particularly partisan about the budget’s attempts to restrain increases in Social Security and Medicare spending — a familiar Democratic election-year theme.

Ideally, of course, Rep. Ryan would have more company in the moderate middle. But even “hard line” Republicans presumably have learned — the hard way — not to pick another “government shutdown” fight at this politically volatile point.

At some future point, though, elected officials in both parties — and Americans in general — must address this challenge that has gone largely neglected during the ongoing presidential race:

Our national debt nearly doubled ($5.7 trillion to $10.6 trillion) from 2001-09 under President George W. Bush.

It has nearly doubled again ($10.6 trillion to $19 trillion) under President Barack Obama.

This is a bipartisan failure that requires a bipartisan solution.

One senator framed the long-term problem quite well a decade ago with this explanation for why he couldn’t support a debt-ceiling boost:

“The fact that we’re here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. Leadership means ‘The buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”

That senator was Mr. Obama, back when our national debt was $9 trillion — less than half of what it is today.

So yes, political reality dictates cutting another deal to keep the federal government going, though not at full throttle.

But the longer we keep postponing the hard decisions required to stem Washington’s red-ink flood, the higher it will rise.

And so will the risks to our nation’s economic future.