Ga.’s Tom Price at the helm at a critical juncture

When U.S. Rep. Tom Price announced more than a year ago that he would not run for Georgia’s soon-to-be vacant Senate seat, he surprised some people. The Roswell Republican was considered the frontrunner, and you don’t often see an ambitious politician turn down a shot to join “the world’s most exclusive club,” as the Senate styles itself.

Price also has a reputation as a savvy strategist, however, and subsequent developments demonstrate why. When Congress reconvenes in January, Price will be rewarded with the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee, the position that Paul Ryan artfully leveraged into a spot on the 2012 presidential ticket. Based on what Price is telling reporters in Washington, he is fully committed to implementing the budget approach that Ryan championed.

Circumstances, however, are quite a bit different. Under Ryan, Republicans could pass annual budget proposals that they knew had no chance of being implemented because Harry Reid ran the Senate. The Ryan budgets were viewed as political posturing, and it was hard to tell which policies were meant to be taken seriously and which were more or less wishful thinking.

Now, with Republicans in control of both the Senate and House, Price has an opportunity that Ryan did not. He is positioned perfectly to begin translating GOP ideology into policy, significantly altering the relationship between the American people and their government.

Among other things, the Ryan budget called for a massive shift in the federal tax structure, $5 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, $129 billion in cuts to Medicare, significant cuts in Pell grants to help low-income Americans go to college, and significant increases in Pentagon spending.

It also included a plan to push new retirees into a privatized version of Medicare. The system would operate much as Obamacare operates, with senior citizens buying private-sector insurance using government-provided subsidies or vouchers. Last week, Price described that approach to Medicare as “settled policy” among Republicans, and suggested that under his leadership, House Republicans wouldn’t back away at all from the Ryan approach.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the Ryan spending cuts would affect those Americans already struggling, with major reductions in programs such as food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit, once a favorite of Ronald Reagan but now considered a liberal giveaway program. In addition, every independent analysis that I’ve seen of the Ryan budget concludes that it would raise taxes on the middle class while significantly slashing taxes on the wealthy.

Until now, the GOP has been able to sell two different versions of itself to two different audiences: Within the movement, and within the conservative press, it has advocated a much more aggressive, even radical approach than it has communicated to the general public. However, now that its proposals have a much greater chance of becoming law, they’re going to be scrutinized much more closely.

With incomes of the top 1 percent growing four to five times faster than for the rest of America, and with median household incomes falling rapidly, I think it’s going to be a very hard sell.