Chairmen of panel try to build support on deficit reduction

By Lori Montgomery Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; A20

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.

Bowles: It's not a job killer. You know what's a job killer? Doing what we're doing now. We keep doing what we're doing now, that's a definite job killer. I'm a business guy. You talk about creating jobs. The one thing I can guarantee you is small business cannot grow and cannot create jobs without money. You've got to have capital. And they're going to be crowded out of the marketplace if we keep building up this debt.

Second . . . if we're going to compete in a knowledge-based global economy, you can bet your buttons we better invest in education, infrastructure and high-value research. We're not going to have any money to invest in education, infrastructure and high-value research. . . .

China's economy is a third the size of ours. They're spending $100 billion a year on high-speed rail. You know what we're spending? Nine billion dollars a year. And you know whose money they're spending? They're spending our money. So all of the jobs that are being created, people say don't worry about the loss of the low-skilled jobs because we'll create the next new thing here. That next new thing will be created over there. And the jobs of the future won't be here. . . . So doing nothing, I guarantee, is a job killer.

Q: What do you want the president to do?

Bowles: Some people just want us to absolutely die and go away. And that's exactly what we're going to do Dec. 2. . . . [The president] knew the two of us. And he knew we were serious about the deficit. It's no secret we were deficit hawks. . . . And he also knew the other people he appointed to the commission were strong on the deficit and getting it down. And he's really given us our wings. He hasn't tried to hold us back. He's said if we get to the promised land and we get to 14 votes, he'll be as helpful as he possibly can. . . . I think that's the appropriate position. . . .

We're going to put out what we think is the right thing for the country. And hopefully he will like parts of it. Nobody's going to like all of it.

Q: Is it more likely that Congress will consider your proposal as a package or that pieces will be moved separately?

Simpson: It takes six to eight years to pass a major piece of legislation. . . . On a piece of legislation that you know is going to go somewhere someday, you want to get a horse on the track. That might be not much. Then the next session you want to put a blanket on the horse. Nobody's paying attention then. Then you put some silks on the horse. Then you clean the outfield and the infield. And then you put a jockey on the horse in the sixth year, and you can win it. Because the toughest part is to do the initial thing, and so it's usually so watered down, it's just gum, you could gum it. Then you begin to build it the next year, the next year and then you get it done. That's what I see.

Bowles: None of our recommendations take place in 2011 - not a dime - while the economy is still going through its recovery. In 2012, we have $69 billion worth of cuts. That sounds like a lot, but we'll be spending about $4 trillion then and we'll have a $15 trillion economy. I don't think $69 billion is going to disrupt a very fragile economic recovery. But what it will do is send signals to the market that America is serious about dealing with this deficit. . . .

The real answer is we're going to put it out there as a package. But the Congress will probably - in the long term - deal with it in pieces, would be my bet.

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