2011 spurred nearly incessant chatter in the political world about House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).
There's little question that 2012 will be any different.
The Wisconsin Republican will again emerge as a focal point as the Republican-led House of Representatives begins considering Ryan's budget blueprint for the government's Fiscal Year 2013. He'll certainly generate substantial attention as debate begins over the Medicare reform proposal Ryan co-authored with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). In 2012, the GOP-controlled House will debate a batch of 10 bills Ryan and others crafted to reform the calcified Congressional budget process. It's largely believed that outdated budget and federal spending rules create significant hurdles to slashing spending and is partly responsible for instigating perennial fights over exploding deficits.
And then there is the 2012 presidential contest.
Ryan's been a darling of conservative circles for years. Many hoped to draft him for a 2012 presidential bid. Ryan stridently ruled out a run in early 2011. The Congressman then shocked most months later when it came to light he actually considered a bid before finally announcing he was a no-go in this presidential sweepstakes.
If Republicans fail to defeat President Obama this November, the effort to court Ryan for 2016 will begin in earnest. The calls for a Ryan presidential run have been boisterous before. But if the GOP falls short against Mr. Obama this fall, the demand for a Ryan presidential campaign in 2016 could be unprecedented.
A re-election of the president will prod the GOP to immediately blame the defeat on its lackluster presidential field. In their Monday morning quarterbacking, Republicans will argue they would have fared better with a different standard-bearer. Someone like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), Sen. John Thune (R-SD) or Ryan.
All bring solid conservative credentials. As former White House Budget Director, Daniels understands the fiscal problems that now beleaguer Washington. But Daniels will be out of office by then. And few in Washington have a command over budgetary policy that can rival Ryan's. Ryan will continue to garner scads of TV interviews and other media appearances as Democrats and Republicans lurch into another year of fiscal skirmishes.
It's simple: fiscal issues now trump everything in Washington. Scrums over the debt ceiling, federal spending and budgets dominate every debate. They relegate other important policy issues like defense, foreign policy, the environment and education to the backburner. And there's little doubt that the economic fisticuffs won't continue to squeeze out those issues over the coming years.
Certainly this path is fraught with peril for Ryan. Democrats will again highlight how his budget plan would reshape Medicare and cut crucial spending programs. They'll describe Ryan's approach as "radical." Democrats could exhume a page from their 2011 playbook where Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) won a special election in an historically-Republican district. Granted, a well-funded third-party candidate and other factors contributed to Hochul's success. But Hochul's surge came as the House adopted Ryan's budget with its Medicare alterations. Hochul targeted some of Ryan's Medicare reform efforts as a threat to seniors and rode to victory.
This year's budget battles start in earnest soon. It begins when President Obama dispatches his budget blueprint to Capitol Hill. And in an oft-performed dance, Ryan and other Republicans will blast it. Soon after, Ryan will craft his own budget for Fiscal Year 2013. The House will probably debate and vote on it in April or May. The sides will lob political volleys back and forth during this period, each trying to gain an upper hand in the discourse.
Ryan's budget "Roadmap" for last year partially privatized Social Security. It cut income tax rates and eliminated the alternative minimum tax (AMT), the estate tax and corporate income taxes. It axed $4 trillion in federal spending over a decade.
The Ryan budget still didn't trim as much federal fat as some conservatives wanted. But it cruised through the House by a vote of 235-193. The plan died in the Senate.
But it didn't matter. In fact the Senate never cleared a budget resolution for the current cycle.
In Congressional accounting, budget resolutions aren't binding. They don't become law and never even go to the president's desk for a signature. They aren't even bills, which have the potential to become law.
When it comes to the way they figure things in Washington, budget resolutions are just general goals which lay out how much the government ought to spend. And the things that Washington now spends the most on - so-called "entitlements" like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security - are "off-budget." That means they aren't even counted in the annual budget the president writes or the ones drafted by the chairs of House and Senate Budget Committees.
"The books are cooked in Washington," said Ryan at a December news conference.
It was at that meeting with reporters where Ryan laid out his vision to fundamentally change the budget process. Congress hasn't attempted to do that since it forged the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. For decades prior to 1974, the federal budget process was an unpredictable, piecemeal mess which produced haphazard results. In fact, many lawmakers criticized President Nixon for "impounding" funds which Congress previously obligated. Nixon would then just wall off the funds by "impounding" them if they went toward a program he opposed.
The goal of the '74 Budget Act was to develop a unified framework that sets annual spending limits for Congress, which, under the Constitution, has the ultimate power of the purse. An annual budget resolution would then help Congressional appropriators determine how much money they have to spend each fiscal year.
In addition, the Budget Act initiated the frequently-exploited "reconciliation" process. "Reconciliation" creates unique parliamentary circumstances in the Senate. It limits the potential for debate and filibusters. Thus, lawmakers from both parties have creatively deployed reconciliation as a tool to navigate the Senate's Byzantine rules. It's helped them pass controversial legislation which might not have stood a chance otherwise. Such was the case when Congressional Democrats pulled the reconciliation lever to help usher the controversial health care bill into law in 2010. By using reconciliation, Democrats subverted some of the traditional parliamentary traps which could have hung up the health care measure. But reconciliation eliminated some of those hurdles.
And Republicans have used reconciliation as a means to an end on many occasions, too.
Almost any Democrat or Republican in Washington will tell you that the present budget process is broken. Some like Paul Ryan argue that the Budget Act of '74 outlived its usefulness and needs to change. Such is the reason why the federal government appears to be on a perpetual collision course with running over the debt ceiling. The old rules are one of the reasons why the government now wrestles with potential government shutdowns at multiple stages throughout the year. Congress now resorts to interim, hodge-podge funding bills to keep the lights on. Many Congressional appropriators from both parties (who are responsible for allocating taxpayer money), will tell you that the current budgeting system favors spending, not cutting. That's why conservatives, tea party loyalists and even fiscally-conscious Blue Dog Democrats are exasperated with efforts to cleave federal spending.
"One of the most frustrating lessons is that DC doesn't know how to count," said freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), an advocate of Ryan's proposed budget reforms. "If the private sector did this, we'd probably be in jail or running MF Global."
Ryan believes that's one of the reasons why Congress again found itself on the brink in December squabbling over the payroll tax cut, the federal reimbursement for physicians who see Medicare patients and an extension of jobless benefits.
"We stumble from dysfunctional episode to dysfunctional episode," Ryan lamented. "If we had a (budget) resolution up front, had caps we could live under (and) actually measured the liabilities, we wouldn't be under these year-end problems."
Ryan's new plan is to ditch the Budget Act of 1974 and replace it with a program of ten individual bills to retrench the budget process.
One idea, sponsored by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) would convert the annual budget resolution into an actual bill. That would give it the force of law if signed by the president. Of course, that potentially prompts a new arena for fiscal sparring between Congress and the White House. For instance, there wasn't a snowball's chance that President Obama would sign Ryan's budget last year. But it didn't matter since it wasn't required.
Another provision authored by Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) would impose "binding limitation on federal spending and deficits." That would prevent most programs from growing faster than inflation.
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) drew up a plan that spreads out the budget cycle from a year to two. Congress now struggles to complete its spending bills on time. This would help that process.
Rep. Jim Lankford (R-OK) is the sponsor of perhaps the most-intriguing proposal: "The Government Shutdown Prevention Act." Congress is supposed to approve all 12 of its annual spending bills to fund the government by October 1, the start of the fiscal year. If Congress is behind, Lankford's effort eliminates the risk of a shutdown by immediately funding the government, spending measures in place or not. However, all government programs would operate at a slightly-reduced level.
Ryan again finds himself at center stage this year as the primary architect of most of these reforms. Democrats are sure to hound him when his annual budget resolution goes through a Budget Committee markup session and then hits the House floor this spring. And that's to say nothing of the coming debates over the debt limit, the credit-worthiness of the federal government and hand-to-hand combat between Congress and the White House over spending priorities in a hotly-contested election year.
After all, this fall squarely in the middle of Paul Ryan's portfolio. And regardless of how things go, 2012 promises to be another big-year for one of the most-watched figures in Washington.
But if President Obama wins re-election, Ryan's 2012 could pale to the expectations many Republicans have for the Wisconsin Republican in 2016.