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$1.2 trillion in cuts? ‘Peanuts,’ says Alan Simpson

at 09:00 AM ET, 09/13/2011

The “supercommittee” doesn’t have an enviable job. Tasked with finding $1.2 to $1.5 trillion in savings, many have predicted certain failure for the deficit-reduction squad. But for Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the bipartisan group needs to set its sites even higher. Congress has agreed to $900 billion in cuts under the debt-ceiling deal  Finding an additional $1.2 trillion is “peanuts,” said Simpson, a former GOP senator. To achieve any real deficit reduction, the committee needs to identify at least $4 trillion in savings, they said at a Monday news conference.

Not by coincidence, that’s how much the Bowles-Simpson commission recommended in deficit reduction this year. The pair insisted that pushing the supercommittee to find three times as much as they’ve been mandated would make things easier, not harder, for the group, as few sacred cows would be left untouched. “The more comprehensive. ... the tougher we made the [Bowles-Simpson] proposal, the more people came abroad,” said Bowles, Clinton’s former chief of staff.

Problem is, Bowles and Simpson themselves failed to find enough political consensus to persuade their commission’s members to approve their own deficit reduction plan this year. Their rationale this time around is two-fold. First, they insist that the threat of the trigger is real indeed and will put enormous pressure on legislators to make a deal. Simpson called the defense cuts in the trigger a “terrible chop” that would result in unpalatable, “horrible situation” for the Defense Department. Secondly, they believe that there’s huge, growing public pressure that will convince Congress to find agreement on a huge deficit reduction plan.

There are reasons to be skeptical on both counts. Though some Republicans have actively aired their complaints about the defense cuts that would be triggered, defense spending is no longer the party’s biggest bugbear; they are far more fearful and united against new revenue through tax hikes. And the public concern about deficits has actually fallen in recent months, not risen: only 22 percent of the public considers it a top priority, while 43 percent put jobs as their primary concern, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.

Bowles and Simpson did acknowledge that not all quarters would be enthused about a massive deficit reduction plan. Simpson warned of the oncoming blitz from special-interest groups in particular. “There will be full-page ads saying, you can’t do this to old people, you can’t do this homeowners, you can’t do this to seniors, you’re breaking the bedpans in the hospices,” he said. “It’s going to be savagery.” Bowles had his own disclaimer: “I said I’m optimistic — not very optimistic.”

That being said, the Obama administration, for one, might actually be encouraged that Bowles and Simpson are pushing the commission for bigger cuts from the supercommittee. Obama is pressing the supercommittee to add his own $450 billion jobs bill to its agenda and find additional savings to offset its cost, totaling $1.9 trillion in reductions. “One benefit of going big ... is that it buys you more breathing room for the recovery to take hold,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which co-signed a letter urging the supercommittee to go beyond $1.5 trillion in cuts.

Neither Simpson nor Bowles signed off on Obama’s plan, but they both acknowledged that fiscally responsible investment in education, infrastructure, and research could be warranted to help the country’s current economic crisis. “You have to know there’s a fragile economy, you have to recognize that,” said Simpson. As for Obama’s own jobs plan, he added: “As long as he pays for it, that’s fine with me. He can do anything he wants.”

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