There are several breathtaking elements here. One is the level of double-speak, the use of euphemism to claim that Ryan intends the exact opposite of what the budget actually does. He’s long been a budgetary charlatan in terms of the overall numbers, and this budget is no exception. The other thing is what, in fact, the budget does, especially in terms of issues relating to higher education.
OK, to just one of the specifics. The budget claims to “expand opportunity,” in part by “Adopt[ing] a sustainable maximum-award level for Pell Grants.” Except in Ryan’s world, for the rest of us, capping a benefit doesn’t expand access; it reduces it. And about “sustainable” levels: in 2013, the federal government spent $33 billion on Pell Grants, and, furthermore, appropriations have more than matched the demand the last two years. Even should the program increase significantly, we must recognize that right now the overall federal budget is around $3.8 trillion, and even discretionary spending is 1.15 trillion. In other words, Pell Grants are less than 3% of even the discretionary part of the budget. Not exactly breaking the bank, and sustainable. Both of Ryan’s claims are demonstrably wrong, even upon cursory analysis. Which tells us that he must be hiding something.
The motivation to eliminate the NEA (currently funded at a measly $146 million) and NEH (about the same) is more insidious. It’s ostensibly because because “The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government” (which is debatable) and because “These agencies can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference.” If you ask me, supporting the arts and humanities is no less a “core mission” of the federal government than, say, tax breaks for oil companies; maybe a case can be made. But the NEA and NEH have only been politicized to the extent that Republicans have done so, and for a long time. Just, who are those “patrons” of a privatized NEA and NEH going to be? Maybe gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, who’s making a bid to be the patron of the next Republican presidential candidate. In other words, having these agencies appeal to private donors would depoliticize them only in the sense they would be wholly under the influence of Ryan’s supporters, rather than at being accountable to Congress.
Why such parsimony? Why can the federal government not afford Pell Grants, the NEA, and the NEH? Let’s get back to Ryan’s supporters, and what this budget actually does for the Republicans’ plutocratic patrons. It slashes the top income bracket from the current 35% to 25%. Repeal federal estate taxes (which already exempt estates under $5.34 million, in other words, for all but America’s richest to begin with). Lower corporate tax rates. In sum, a big giveaway to the rich, at everyone else’s expense.
These, then, are the real reasons for Paul Ryan, and the 200+ Republican in the House of Representatives who will vote in favor of his budget, why we as a nation shouldn’t (not can’t, but shouldn’t) pay to support poor students, to support the humanities, to support the arts. It’s not because we as a nation can’t afford it. It’s because the rich folk for whom Ryan is carrying water don’t want to.