Conversations Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson
Chairmen of panel try to build support on deficit reduction
With President Obama's deficit commission poised to vote next week on a plan to rein in the soaring national debt, the commission's co-chairmen are campaigning hard to build political momentum behind the effort.
Erskine Bowles, chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) are rewriting their original blueprint - which would slice nearly $4 trillion from deficits over the next decade - in hopes of attracting broad support from their bipartisan panel. They discussed their work for the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform at a recent breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Q Is there a climate now for [serious deficit reduction] to be possible? If not, how long would it take to build such a climate?
Bowles: Specifics make it tough. My momma, who's 92, said: "Hey, Erskine, I'm really glad you're doing this. Your dad really would have liked that. He was really fiscally responsible." Then she says in the same breath, "But don't mess with Medicare." That's about like everybody is - don't touch my stuff. . . .
I think the world's changed. . . . Everybody from every walk of life tells me they're glad we're doing this. I think for years and years politicians have been afraid they'd be punished if they took tough decisions, if they made choices. I think the world's changed. I think they're going to be heavily penalized if they don't make these tough choices.
Q: For Social Security, can you talk about the tradeoffs, how you went about spreading the pain?
Bowles: What we tried to do with Social Security is really simple: 75-year solvency. . . . You don't get it now until you're 66. I know that because I'm 65. That's going to 67, under law as it exists today, in 2027. We took it to 68 40 years from now and to 69 65 years from now. And I think that gives people a good amount of time to get ready for it. And we listened to people who said you've got to take care of the people that have these backbreaking jobs. So we put a hardship provision in there that would take care of 20 percent of the populace . . . that can't work later on in their life.
Q: Newt Gingrich said the plan would be a job killer. Your reaction?
Simpson: I was very disappointed in Newt when he was part of the Andrews Air Base group [in 1990] when they got George Bush [the first] to say you've got to break your [no new taxes] pledge and if you do, we can save the country. . . . And Newt said that's good. And then Newt went to the House and voted against it. . . . So I don't really have a lot of thorough appreciation for his comment.