Revisiting The Deficit Reduction Commission Plan

With the November failure of a “supercommittee” to come up with spending cuts to trim the federal deficit, Congress now faces an across-the-board 10 % budget cut – or, they could return to the deficit-reduction plan outlined a year ago by retired Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of a presidential commission.

In 2010, the commission’s recommendations were largely ignored by both the White House and Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress.

Simpson was the Republican half of the bipartisan commission chair, along with Democrat Bowles, a Democrat from North Carolina who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and is now president of the University of North Carolina.

Bowles and Simpson sat down a year ago with Chronicle producer Geoff O’Gara, and described a plan for budget cuts that takes on almost every sacred cow in the federal spending. It drew fire from both left and right – and praise from commentators who want to see substance rather than rhetoric in the budget debate.

Of course, a Simpson interview offers plenty of rhetoric too – funny, irreverent, salty talk leavened with humor. And the relatively soft-spoken Bowles, who has become fast friends with his co-chair, loosens up in the conversation too, describing them as the “Sonny and Cher” of the budget debate. “He’s Cher,” added Bowles, pointing to Simpson.

The commission’s plan trimmed $3.8 trillion in federal spending over the next decade, primarily by modifying entitlement programs that politicians have been afraid to touch: Health Care and Social Security. The commission also proposed controls on Defense spending. And it laid out a plan that would radically change income and corporate taxes, lowering basic rates while closing loopholes like second home mortgage interest deductions and exemptions for business health care plans.

Simpson garnered headlines during the drafting of the report when he described Social Security as “a milk cow with 340 million teats” in a letter to an advocate for senior women, and suggested she get “a real job.” That had various people calling for the Wyoming Senator’s head. But while Simpson offered an apology, there was no resignation – and Simpson repeats the quotation in even richer language in his Chronicle interview.

Though they joke with each other and spar with O’Gara, the two are passionate about the gravity of the deficit problem. If the deficit isn’t brought under control, they say, the nation will be deeply indebted to countries like China, which want to replace it as a world power. They say the sacrifice and pain of deficit reduction must be spread throughout society, whether it’s raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits, or cutting the “tax expenditures” that include everything from charitable deductions to the current low capital gains tax.

At 80, Simpson shows no signs of slowing down. “I just keep going. I had a grandmother who lived to be 100.” Bowles is sure that he will be called upon again, by both Republicans and Democrats, to tackle the nation’s problems.

And clearly, they would enjoy working together. “Integrity, trust, humor, that’s where the two of us have hit the nerve that has disappeared in Washington in recent years,” said Simpson. “Unfortunately, we do look like a comedy team at times.”

About Geoff O'Gara

Geoff O'Gara is a Senior Producer at Wyoming PBS, and an author, based in Lander, Wyoming. His books include A Long Road Home (Houghton-Mifflin); What You See in Clear Water (Knopf); and a number of travel guides for National Geographic Books, Fodors, and other publishers. He has been a newspaper columnist, an editor of High Country News, a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler, and a freelance writer for publications ranging from the New York Times to Travel & Leisure. He received a Kellogg Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan and the Neltje Blanchan Award for writing about the natural world. At Wyoming PBS, he produces and hosts public affairs programming like Capitol Outlook, and writes and produces documentaries such as "Washakie" and upcoming programs on "Migrations" and Alan Simpson.