Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank
Opinion Writer

The bare truth about the ‘fiscal cliff’

Debt fighters Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, dining with reporters Wednesday morning, discussed a White House official’s admission that the nation’s fiscal problems won’t be solved by a “naked” tax increase alone, without spending cuts.

“I asked, ‘Is that the same thing as nekkid?’ ” recounted Bowles, a North Carolinian who was Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

Dana Milbank

Dana Milbank writes a regular column on politics.

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Ann Telnaes animation: Sen. Mitch McConnell refuses to raise the tax rates on the rich.

Ann Telnaes animation: Sen. Mitch McConnell refuses to raise the tax rates on the rich.

“You didn’t tell him the difference between naked and nekkid?” inquired Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming and co-chairman with Bowles of the nation’s debt commission.

“I should’ve,” Bowles said. “If you’d have been there, you would’ve.”

And so Simpson did. “If you’re naked, you don’t have any clothes on,” he explained, “but if you’re nekkid, you don’t have any clothes on but you’re up to something.”

By that definition, our leaders are just plain naked. As the nation approaches the year-end “fiscal cliff,” nobody is up to much of anything. And there isn’t so much as a fig leaf to conceal the lack of progress.

As of Thursday, Congress has only 10 legislative days left before the cliff plunge, yet President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) haven’t met in 13 days, and reportedly haven’t spoken on the phone all week. Staff-level talks have produced little progress. Instead, both sides have embarked on a campaign of photo ops with business leaders and middle-class taxpayers aimed less at persuasion than at avoiding blame once the cliff — a combination of huge spending cuts and tax increases — is reached.

The few voices on Capitol Hill pleading for compromise — Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Republican Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Republican Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), and, of course, Simpson and Bowles — have been isolated. In fact, they’ve been harassed by extremists on both sides. As Bowles met privately with House Republican leaders Wednesday, liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sent a letter to colleagues and issued a press release with the title “Simpson-Bowles Must Not Shape Deficit Debate.”

“I’m really worried,” Bowles said over a bacon-and-egg breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel arranged by the Christian Science Monitor. “I believe the probability is we’re going over the cliff and I think that would be horrible. . . . It would be insane to breach this fiscal cliff, yet I think there is only a one-third possibility we’ll actually get something done before December 31.”

He became gloomier as the meal progressed. “It’s at most a one-third probability,” he clarified.

Eventually, any deal to restore the nation’s finances will have to look something like the Simpson-Bowles proposal, which combines tax increases and cuts to entitlement spending. There is no viable alternative to their core formula. Yet the threat of a crisis doesn’t seem to be enough to spur action; lawmakers are apparently content to wait for an actual crisis — and Simpson and Bowles are passing the time as scolds and jesters.

At the Monitor breakfast, the folksy Simpson tried out a variety of his witticisms on unbending Republicans (“They’re rigid as a fire poker but without the occasional warmth”), on compromise (“If you can’t compromise, you shouldn’t be in the legislature, and you should never, ever marry”) and on why the commission they led was called Simpson-Bowles, not Bowles-Simpson. “The acronym for that is not appropriate. So we called it Simpson-Bowles, but that means sumbitch.”

Bowles, usually Simpson’s straight man, joined in, calling the two of them “Sonny and Cher” and describing his past as a university president: “It’s like being CEO of a cemetery. You got lots of people underneath you but ain’t nobody listening.” He might say the same of his current role, except he doesn’t have many people under him.

Jackie Calmes of the New York Times reports that the two have turned their act into a “sort of Off Broadway show” that sometimes nets them $40,000 apiece from business groups. But here in Washington, reviews of their act have been highly selective.

Obama says their work is reflected in his “balanced” plan of tax increases and spending cuts, even though the president’s plan is far less aggressive and in different proportions. Boehner points to the duo’s insistence that the White House agree to entitlement cuts, while largely ignoring their prescription on taxes.

Bowles expressed exasperation with both of them. If they were serious about the problem, “you wouldn’t be going home for Thanksgiving, you wouldn’t be going home for Christmas,” he said. “If we go over this fiscal cliff, you have bet the country, and the unintended consequences — none of us knows.”

That’s the naked truth.

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