In the latest issue of The Ripon Forum, former Sen. Alan Simpson is at his homespun, Wyoming best.
“There’s so much B.S. and mush,” he said, referring to the way both parties are talking about fixing the nation’s budget mess. “Any candidate that gets on their hind legs and says, ‘We can get this done without touching precious Medicare, precious Medicaid, precious Social Security, and precious defense’ … give them a horselaugh. They’re a fake!”
Simpson, a Republican, and Democratic former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles authored the report that came out of President Obama’s deficit commission more than a year ago. It was a realistic, painful approach to fiscal sanity, and it was considered dead when the president virtually ignored it.
And yet like Frankenstein, or perhaps Lazarus, depending on how you feel about it, the plan is coming back to life.
Both political parties mentioned it during their respective national conventions, each trying to blame each other for the fact it hasn’t gone anywhere. And now there is a growing feeling that Simpson-Bowles may just be the nation’s best hope for backing away from the fiscal cliff later this year. (Read this analysis from Govexec.com, or this one from WNYC.org.)
In a nutshell, their plan would raise Social Security’s retirement age to 69 and reduce benefits, but not for a while. It would cut defense, cut farm subsidies, increase the federal gasoline tax by 15 cents a gallon and remove a lot of tax deductions, such as for interest paid on mortgages.
The flip side is it would reduce marginal income tax rates considerably. It would cut $2 to $3 for every $1 it raises through new taxes.
The details aren’t necessarily important because they are bound to change through negotiations. But the basic idea is for a centrist approach that distributes the pain, raises revenues and keeps from destroying economic recovery through onerous tax increases.
Pass something like this and you won’t have to worry about ending Bush-era tax cuts or the temporary payroll tax cuts or across-the-board cuts to public services — all of which will happen automatically at the end of the year unless Congress acts. The Congressional Budget Office has predicted these automatic things would lead to a new recession.
But to get there, both sides are going to have to willingly rewrite history a bit and shut up about it.
Nancy Pelosi would have to forget she called the plan “Simply unacceptable.” The president, should he be re-elected, would have to forget he set the commission up for failure by requiring two-thirds of its members to approve it, and he will have to forget he ignored it for nearly two years.
Republicans would have to forget how they said the plan was a non-starter because it raises taxes. Should he be elected, Paul Ryan would have to forget he sat on the commission and voted against the report.
They could do this and allow each other to claim they wanted it all along, and the nation could re-establish its good credit rating and begin whistling down the yellow-brick road.
However, most important of all, the many and varied special interests affected by the plan would have to give a little.
Actually, that may be the biggest reason of all to give a Simpson-style horselaugh to the idea.
The only way to solve the nation’s budget mess is through pain, and special interests scream in pain louder than anyone.
If any group of politicians is capable of ignoring those screams, however, it might be a lame-duck Congress meeting for the last time.
They also might be the nation’s last best chance to avoid a very unhappy New Year.