Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to lead panel on reducing U.S. budget deficits

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

President Obama will name Alan K. Simpson, a former Senate Republican leader, and Erskine B. Bowles, a top official in the Clinton White House, to chair a special commission to solve the nation's budget problems, administration officials said Tuesday.

Obama plans to make the announcement Thursday, when he intends to sign an executive order creating the 18-member panel, which will be tasked with drafting a plan to significantly reduce soaring budget deficits by 2015.

The annual gap between spending and tax collections is expected to approach $1.6 trillion this year. At more than 10 percent of the overall economy, it would be the largest budget gap since the end of World War II. While deficits are projected to decline as the economy recovers from recession, they are projected to soar again by the end of this decade as retiring baby boomers tap into the entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare.

"How did we get to a point in America where you get to a certain age in life, regardless of net worth or income, and you're 'entitled'? The word itself is killing us," Simpson said by telephone from his home in Cody, Wyo. "Our job is to move this issue forward."

Democrats said Simpson and Bowles are uniquely equipped to blaze a path out of the fiscal wilderness -- and to forge bipartisan consensus on a plan likely to require painful tax increases as well as program cuts.

Bowles, 64, served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House and helped broker the last significant bipartisan budget agreement in 1997, crafting a package of tax hikes, entitlement cuts and budget controls that helped generate the first balanced budgets in nearly 30 years. Last week, Bowles announced plans to retire as president of the University of North Carolina system.

Simpson, 78, represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1997, rising to the post of Republican whip and gaining a reputation as an independent thinker willing to break from partisan orthodoxy. Since his retirement, he has taught at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and served on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, a congressional panel created to recommend changes to U.S. policy in Iraq.

Though long out of office, Simpson is still widely respected among the GOP rank and file, and Democrats hope his involvement will spur Republican leaders to cooperate in the politically delicate task of reordering the nation's fiscal priorities.

"Alan Simpson is hardly a pushover in anybody's world," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), one of the commission's leading advocates.

On Tuesday, however, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) again declined to say whether they would name members of the panel. "Blue-ribbon commissions are fine and dandy, but we're still waiting for a response from the president on our proposal to start cutting spending right now," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

Simpson, who informed Boehner and McConnell of his decision to lead the panel, said he has little patience for such talk, especially since Republicans did nothing to cut spending during the George W. Bush administration.

"If they don't participate, they run a real hazard in these times," he said. "The [Senate] election in Massachusetts was not so much a glorious Republican victory as a bunch of people who were damned mad saying, 'Why don't you get a handle on this stuff?' You can't get a handle on it if you don't participate."

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