Coalition urges tax hikes, entitlements cuts to tame national debt


The campaign was founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, left, and former Republican senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, right, shown here in March 2011. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A coalition of business leaders, budget experts and former politicians launched a $25 million campaign Tuesday to build political support for a far-reaching plan to raise taxes, cut popular retirement programs and tame the national debt.

With anxiety rising over a major budget mess looming in January, the campaign — dubbed “Fix the Debt” — is founded on the notion that the moment is finally at hand when policymakers will be forced to compromise on an ambitious debt-reduction strategy.

After nearly three years of bipartisan negotiations, the broad outlines of that strategy are clear, the group’s leaders said during a news conference at the National Press Club: Raise more money through a simplified tax code and spend less on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the primary drivers of future borrowing.

“Everyone knows in their hearts and their minds what has to be done,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (D), who is chairing the group with former New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg (R). The goal of the campaign is to “create a safe environment where it’s not only good policy, but good politics as well.”

The campaign was founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. The two men led an independent fiscal commission that in 2010 produced a $4 trillion debt-reduction framework that has won praise from politicians across the political spectrum.

But the Bowles-Simpson plan never won the explicit backing of President Obama or GOP leaders, and therefore never gained real traction in Congress.

Now, with a high-stakes election at hand, “we got two wings out there flapping in the American political system and the fuselage is missing,” said former Georgia senator Sam Nunn (D), a member of the campaign’s steering committee. “The middle of America is going to have to rally and they’re going to have to support people who are willing to work together.”

The campaign plans to launch a social media drive to persuade lawmakers to approve a plan similar to the Bowles-Simpson framework by July 4, 2013 — replacing $600 billion in abrupt tax hikes and sharp spending cuts that are otherwise set to take effect in January.

The campaign is also pressing for one of this fall’s presidential debates to be focused on forcing Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney to offer plans for stabilizing the debt, which, at $15.9 trillion, is now larger than the U.S. economy.

The most important development, however, may be creation of a Business Leaders Council that includes the chief executives of 100 of the Fortune 500 companies. The council will lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well as people in their own communities, said Honeywell CEO David M. Cote, who also served on the Bowles-Simpson commission.

After watching last summer’s train wreck, when lawmakers came within days of defaulting on the national debt, Cote said, “there’s a lot of us that are a little scared about” the $600 billion cliff looming in January.

Going over that cliff would “drive a worldwide recession. You can’t let that happen,” Cote said. “So what we’re trying to do is get all politicians on all sides mobilized to say, yes, there’s a solution here.”

“The math on this is simple. It’s the political will that’s been lacking.”

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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