This is a guest opinion piece for On Leadership.
It is not surprising that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is struggling to find common ground as the November 23rd deadline approaches. And the question we’ll soon start hearing is whether these “supercommittee” members will provide the leadership we so desperately need, putting aside their own personal priorities in favor of what’s best for the common good.
But that’s the wrong question. The real leadership question is, will they realize in time that their personal good and the common good aren’t actually in opposition?
Conventional wisdom, after all, is that politicians who ask voters to accept sacrifices in the form of lower benefits or higher taxes are punished, and the smart play is to save the issues of entitlements and taxes for partisan attacks. But that is a misjudgment. It fails to take into account the growing dissatisfaction citizens have with politicians who are more concerned with gaining partisan advantage than dealing with the serious challenges facing the country. The American public is ready to make sacrifices for the good of the nation, and they expect their leaders to do the same. You know what will get a politician the support of the American people these days? A big, bold and smart agreement.
Having served as co-chairmen of the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, we know better than most the monumental nature of the challenge they face. Committee members are being bombarded by special interests objections and partisan purists warning against straying from party orthodoxy.
Yes, these leaders on both sides understand the magnitude of the problem and know, deep down, what must be done. So does it really seem like the safer bet to let the markets make these tough choices for us? To a politician, it might at first. Going against special interests and partisan heavyweights can look, short term, like the bigger political risk.
But the crisis unfolding in Europe should serve as a stark warning to our political leaders that inaction is an enormous short-term political risk as well, not just one that trickles down to future officeholders. Things can rapidly fall apart and there are serious political consequences for leaders who fail to act before it’s too late. Recent events in Greece and Italy underscore that waiting for a fiscal crisis to force action is disastrous, both economically and politically. If the supercommittee passes up this historic opportunity to act, it won’t be long before we will be forced to even more dramatically cut spending and increase taxes.
So how do you start such an agreement? Go big and go broad. One of the lessons from our work leading the Fiscal Commission is that it is key to take an approach both large enough to match the magnitude of the problem and comprehensive enough to allow for the tradeoffs and balance necessary to reach a bipartisan agreement. Fiscal Commission members were willing to take on their own sacred cows and fight special interests—but if, and only if, they saw others doing the same. The stark reality is that to take on anything in negotiations such as these, you almost have to take on everything. A supermajority of the commission would not have voted for our plan had we not taken on defense, domestic programs, the solvency of Social Security, health care, and spending in the tax code all at once.
Members of Congress have personally told us as much about the present case as well. They would be willing to make the tough votes for ambitious tax and spending reforms as part of a substantive fiscal plan, but only if members on the other side jump at the same time. For instance, there is growing public support in the Senate for a “Go Big” plan with entitlement and tax reform. A bipartisan group of 100 members in the House of Representatives sent a letter to the Super Committee urging them to look at everything from discretionary spending to entitlements to revenues in order to put together a package that goes beyond the $1.5 trillion goal.
And a few individuals are willing to risk going against party priorities, knowing that as long as our debt continues to grow at a faster rate than the economy, it will have negative consequences for both parties. These are the folks who asked themselves whether personal political priorities and the common good are really at odds today—and rightly answered no. Senator Tom Coburn, for example, has concluded that it protects conservatives’ long-term interests to agree to increased revenues as part of a plan for controlling our debt. Meanwhile, progressives such as Senator Dick Durbin have reached the same conclusion about a plan that includes changes in entitlement programs.
We need more politicians who understand the calculus that personal priorities and common good coexist. The nation desperately needs broad, bipartisan agreement based on shared sacrifices. And the members of the supercommittee know the policy options and the choices that must be made. Now, it’s a matter of getting the committee’s members to recognize that statesmanship can also be a political win. Some might even call this leadership.
Mr. Bowles is a former White House Chief of Staff and Mr. Simpson is a former U.S. Senator from Wyoming. They co-chaired the Fiscal Commission and currently lead the Moment of Truth Project on the federal deficit.