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Anti-Deficit Duo Simpson and Bowles: Trying to Save Us From Fiscal Ruin

5 years ago
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BOSTON -- Did you know that our government only has enough money to pay for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? That we borrow to pay for education, defense, roads, research and absolutely everything else? That $920 billion of the money we borrow comes from China? That if we continued on autopilot, by 2020 we would be paying $1 trillion a year in interest on our debt?

These startling statistics were presented by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, at a governors meeting here Sunday. The grim numbers were only slightly less alarming than the political picture – ideologues without facts, partisans without flexibility, and a commission without much authority to force hard choices on the nation and its leaders.

Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming, made the whole venture sound like something out of the Wild West, danger lurking in every dusty town and saloon. "Erskine and I travel only as a pair," he said. "We ride shotgun on each other. It's a lonely life out there in hostile territory."

The men at the helm of the deficit commission, to drastically understate it, have completely different styles. Simpson, a Republican with a libertarian bent, is given to free-wheeling remarks and humor that cuts to the bone. Democrat Bowles, a former White House chief of staff who now heads the University of North Carolina, looks and talks like a very earnest professor or the investment banker he once was.

In their hands could lie the fate of the nation. At the end of the year, the 18-member commission established by President Barack Obama will issue recommendations for containing skyrocketing annual deficits and cumulative debt. Congress is not required to take up its recommendations, but congressional leaders have agreed to hold votes on items endorsed by 14 members. "We have baby teeth, which is better than no teeth at all, I guess," Bowles said.

Can anything win backing from 14 people? The answer depends on whether commission members, especially the dozen in Congress, will be able to transcend pressure from people who are unalterably opposed to spending cuts on the one hand, or tax increases on the other.

The GOP is so dug in on taxes that most candidates sign no-tax pledges, and six GOP senators voted against their own deficit commission bill this year out of fear the panel would suggest tax increases. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona set off Democrats this week when he said on "Fox News Sunday" that an extension of jobless benefits had to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere, but that was not necessary when it came to extending tax cuts for the wealthy ($678 billion over 10 years). "You should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans," he said.

The militance about taxes began to escalate steeply after George H.W. Bush vowed at the 1988 convention, "Read my lips: no new taxes." Two years later, Republicans turned on him for accepting a deficit-reduction deal that included higher taxes. Two years after that, he lost his re-election bid.

Before Bush, raising taxes did not seem to be fatal for GOP candidates or presidents. Simpson called it a "flashword" in today's deficit debate and pointedly condemned revisionist history by conservatives. The other day, he told the governors, "One of the great zealots of our time was talking about his favorite anti-tax president, Ronald Reagan." He said he informed the man that Reagan had signed four large tax increases and seven lesser ones: "A total of $132 billion in tax increases under those eight years, and why? To make the government run."

Bowles tried to be reassuring about the concerns of liberals even as he talked about the severity of the cutbacks that will be required. He will not sign off on anything, he said, that harms the disadvantaged. He also said commission proposals would not cut government spending amid "a truly very fragile economic recovery." Its recommendations would take effect 18 months away in 2012, Bowles said, enough time for the recovery to "gain a foothold." When the government does start taking serious steps to balance the budget, he added, it should continue to invest in education, infrastructure and innovative research.

Where will the changes come? Bowles said Obama has made clear in public and in private meetings with him and Simpson that next year he will propose real reductions in the cost of entitlements. Bowles predicted cuts in military spending -- "We don't have to be the world's global policeman or get involved in nation building." He talked about a simplified tax code that would "close the tax gap" between what we take in and what we spend. Maybe a more standardized Medicaid program that offers poor people basic health care services but nothing fancy. Simpson said the new universal health-care law – which doesn't take full effect until 2014 -- is also on the table.

The governors, in town for a National Governors Association meeting, wondered why the feds can't be as fiscally responsible as they must be. Where's the urgency? asked Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Bowles likened the problem to a slow-moving cancer, destroying the country from within. We could do nothing and possibly survive for five years. "This is the most predictable economic crisis in history," he said, but Congress often doesn't act until a crisis is on its doorstep.

The Simpson-Bowles road show is like a buddy movie for wonks. They play wry, honest brokers on a mission to nudge a thankless nation off the road to fiscal ruin. The routine left a paradoxical impression. "If it's possible to tell us how bad things are and make us feel good about it, I think both of you two have done it," Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas told them.

This after Simpson rated the odds of success "rather harrowing" and lamented that "there are many who hope we will fail. I can tell you, we've met 'em all."

That may not be quite right. Almost everyone wants the commission to succeed. They just want success to be achieved on their particular terms, be it zero tolerance for major spending cuts or zero tolerance for any tax hikes at all. Therein lies the chasm, and those harrowing odds.

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Thank you for this article. I found it very well written and informative.

December 21 2010 at 12:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know how to cut spending?No more foreigh aid,zero zilch,none,Spend are defense money on protecting american an the american people,not everybody else in th eworld,Take away the pensions of the unacount able anti americans in wash dc,No more 80% tax rite off for advertishment an entertain expense,that would so put a badly needed cap on the over paied actors,athletics,singers,coaches,an politions,

July 27 2010 at 1:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The last two presidents to have a balanced budget in this country were both Democrats: Bill Clinton and, yes, it's hard to believe, the man who started the Great Society in the 1960's, Lyndon Johnson. And Johnson, in addition to the Great Society programs, was fighting a war in French Indochina (aka Vietnam)that ultimately cost $500 billion, which was real money back then. There has not been a Republican president since Eisenhower who came close to a balanced budget. Ronald Reagan doubled the national deficit in his eight years in office. Then George W. Bush nearly tripled the deficit during his eight years in office. The money that Obama is spending now is due to the $800 billion that was necessary to pull the world back from nearly complete financial collapse due to Bush's laisse fair attitude towards businesses acting responsibly, both in terms of the law and also, heaven forbid, ethical considerations. Obama is also fighting two wars that will cost at least a trillion dollars that Mr. Bush is responsible for. He abandoned Afghanistan and the pursuit of Bin Laden when he had him right in his grasp. Now, we are fighting a war there that looks a lot like a land war in Southeast Asia, that could take decades and may never resolve itself. The war in Iraq has primarily made progress because we literally paid Sunni rebels to quit fighting and to pursue Al Quadea instead.(We not only paid them, we gave them amnesty, people who had killed American troups. Finally, all the interest that we are paying the Chinese is largely financing the monetary black holes created by Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The Republican party says they are the most fiscally responsible of the two and believe in small government, but the federal government grew enormously under both Reagan and Bush. What the Republicans don't want to do is tax the wealthiest 1% of people in this country. They own the saying "The rich can always get richer....because they have all the money." Americans need to see what the Republican Party is all about beneath the flag waving and the rant and rhetoric and racism of former Top 40 DJ's -- aka Beck and Limbaugh -- who have personal histories chacterized by major substance abuse problems, lack of formal education, questionnable IQ's and a couple of encounters each with the police authorities. The Republicans attack the federal goiverment because its an easy target and they have somehow convinced Americans they aren't responsible for the size of America's indebtedness.Think again, America. All that flag waving is merely a distraction, political sleight of hand, so that you don't see the money changers in the temple of democracy

July 13 2010 at 11:43 PM Report abuse -7 rate up rate down Reply

Simpson and Bowles have only one duty and that is to give Obama an excuse to raise taxes on everybody and not just the wealthy as he so often promised. The sure thing about appointing a commission is by selecting the right appointees you can assure an opinion that fits your agenda. Obama is just helpless to find a solution to the economic problems so he has to have someone to blame if his tax increases cause a depression which is likely to happen.

July 13 2010 at 4:59 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply

This administration has spent more than all others combined. So we know that this was a trainwreck just waiting to happen. If the republicans do gain control of the House in November, they will have a huge task ahead of them to reign in all the spending. The Republicans have a huge mess to clean up that is being left by the democrats...after all the dems have had control of the House spending for the past 4 years.

July 13 2010 at 4:40 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

If you want to really get us out of debt, get the lobbyists out of Washington and stop the big corporations from sending all the jobs to other countries. All we need is jobs. Hard work doesn't stop us, lack of work does.

July 13 2010 at 4:11 PM Report abuse +17 rate up rate down Reply

The so called "debt commission" was only created so Obama will have an excuse to raise taxes on the middle class. The problem cannot be solved with tax hikes, it must be solved by complete elimination of several departments in the federal government. First to go must be the Department of Education. Education is best handled at the local level and for the most part is.

July 13 2010 at 3:32 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

the government and The Fed and the banks and the credit card companies have been enticing us to get into debt for a long time. they want us to follow the lead of the federal government and if you want to go down the tubes, do it. The government has no right to get us taxpayers into debt and then send us the bill! I hope these guys can make a difference!

July 13 2010 at 3:26 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply

some day maybe we wont spend 30% of our tax dollars defending Europe and Japan, maybe someday we can go back near Eisenhowers tax rate on the wealthy of 91%, Maybe someday we will take back the Jobs we outsourced to China,India, Indonesia, Mexico, Central America etc etc etc The Republicans and Democrats are both to blame

July 13 2010 at 2:55 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply

Perhaps Simpson and Bowles should sit down and read the Goose That Laid The Golden Egg to the American populace.
They need to put the debt crisis in context the American people could understand.
Or perhaps Sponge Bob could give a public service announcement...

July 13 2010 at 1:58 PM Report abuse +10 rate up rate down Reply

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