CODY — No one who has followed the work of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was surprised that its final proposal, released last week, included painful tax hikes and spending cuts.
But as with going to the dentist, knowing something is necessary but painful doesn’t always make it easier to confront. In fact, some partisans and advocates who followed the commission’s progress found that the sharp tongue and unvarnished candor of co-chair Alan Simpson made the process of finding ways to trim nearly $3.9 trillion from federal budget deficits over the next decade even more harrowing.
During more than 100 hearings over nine months, the former Wyoming senator and co-chair Erskine Bowles, former Clinton White House chief of staff, listened as stalwarts and crusaders from every point on the political spectrum pleaded their case to the 18-member commission.
Backers of programs like Medicare and Social Security said that any cuts were likely to hit America’s most vulnerable the hardest. Likewise, champions of lower taxes railed against what they knew was sure to be a wide range of reforms and revisions aimed at generating trillions in new revenues.
The proposal, “The Moment of Truth,” treats Social Security reform as a separate and distinct issue, not connected to attacking budget deficits.
“We admitted very clearly that Social Security is not part of deficit reduction,” Simpson said. He pointed out that there is widespread agreement among legislators and Social Security Administration leaders that the program must be reformed if it is to continue to meet its obligations beyond 2037.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a commission member, voted against the plan, which calls for raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 by 2075. She said the plan would “have serious consequences for lower- and middle-class Americans.”
Schakowsky released her own plan that did not slow benefit growth or raise the retirement age.
“Lower- and middle-class Americans did not cause the deficit,” she said in a statement.
She said a federal budget surplus was turned into a deficit “due to massive tax cuts — mainly to wealthy Americans; two wars paid for by borrowed money; and a major recession caused by the recklessness of the big Wall Street banks.”
The difference between how Schakowsky and Simpson view and discuss Social Security reflects the competing philosophies of many elected officials and policy analysts in how they approach the program.
Schakowsky refers to the surplus monies paid into Social Security over past decades as a $2.6 trillion surplus.
Those excess funds have been loaned out to other branches of the federal government and spent. Social Security benefits for existing retirees are paid by current workers, as the system was designed.
Simpson, 79, refers to the $2.6 trillion in excess trust fund deposits as “I.O.U.s,” stressing that Schakowsky’s surplus doesn’t exist as a current account full of money, but a future debt obligation.
“That fund consists of I.O.U.s in the form of Treasury instruments, and they have not been stolen,” he said in response to those who say the fund has been “raided” to pay for unrelated projects.
“They’re in the form of top-notch securities backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government,” he said.
He praised Schakowsky for putting forth a plan, saying that any serious discussion of budget deficits requires participants to offer their own solutions, and not just to oppose others’ proposals.
Schakowsky’s plan and other proposals put forth by additional groups in recent weeks all acknowledge the depletion of Social Security’s trust fund by 2037. Schakowsky’s plan addresses the issue in part by raising taxes on wages, but preserving or increasing benefit levels.
While the Simpson-Bowles plan gradually raises the retirement age to 69 by 2075, it also gives a bump in payments to the very old — retirees who have received benefits for 20 years or more — and includes a hardship exemption for manual laborers who cannot physically work after age 62, but who do not qualify for disability.
Despite the sometimes grim and difficult process of exploring benefit cuts and tax hikes, Simpson and Bowles have tirelessly pitched their plan to the people and the press with an affable mix of folksy advice, dire warnings and gallows humor.
Just minutes into his introductory remarks during the panel’s first public meeting in April, Simpson had the room laughing over a crack about how he regretted taking Vice President Joe Biden’s phone call recruiting him for the effort.
“Erskine is the administrator, I do the color,” he often quipped in interviews.
But for a nation — not to mention a Washington, D.C. community of special-interest advocates — that is far less accustomed to Simpson’s colorful comments than are his neighbors in Wyoming, it didn’t take long for his quips to become political fodder.
While in the Senate, Simpson chaired the Social Security Subcommittee and the Committee on Aging. But he sometimes ran afoul of senior groups who disagreed with his calls for overhauls in popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.
As a senator, he held hearings on the business practices of the American Association of Retired Persons. He used the term “greedy geezers” to refer to wealthy seniors who, in his view, “game the system” for federal benefits at the expense of needier people.
So it should have been no surprise that his position on the deficit panel made Simpson a lightning rod for criticism from advocates for seniors and the federal programs that serve them.
“Some of my emails are just savage,” he said of messages from detractors.
But instead of shrinking from the fray, Simpson said it “tickles” him when interest groups of any political stripe go on the attack.
“When your skin gets ripped off as many times as mine has, it grows back double-strength,” he said.
Simpson struck a nerve in August, when he fired off a tart email to Ashley Carson, executive director of the Older Women’s League.
In an April blog post, Carson warned Simpson to avoid tinkering with Social Security, and went on to accuse him of sexism and the “constant bashing of seniors.”
“If you have some better suggestions about how to stabilize Social Security instead of just babbling into the vapors, let me know,” he wrote.
“And yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ‘em too. It’s the same with any system in America,” Simpson wrote. “We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits! Call when you get honest work!”
“I really shouldn’t have said Social Security was a milk cow with 310 million tits,” Simpson said Friday, after an 11-7 vote by commission members in favor of the plan. “I should have said America is a milk cow with 310 million tits, and I’ve said that before.”
Carson released the letter to the news media and called for Simpson’s resignation from the commission. She was joined by the National Organization for Women, the AARP and a half-dozen congressional Democrats.
Within two days, Simpson had sent Carson a contrite apology that was posted on the commission’s web site.
“I apologize for what I wrote. I can see that my remarks have caused you anguish, and that was not my intention,” he wrote.
“Over the last 40 years, I have had my size 15 feet in my mouth a time or two.”
The White House announced that his apology was sufficient and Simpson would remain on the commission. After all, the president’s advisers were well aware of Simpson’s views when they considered him for serving on the panel. But that didn’t stop special-interest groups from milking his “milk cow” comment for additional political points.
In September, Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, delivered a bag of 1,500 baby bottle nipples to Simpson at a commission meeting.
In a video posted online of the strained exchange, O’Neill asked Simpson to pledge not to cut Social Security. She said that reducing benefits would undermine the program, and that “millions of people would be thrown out of the middle-class and into poverty.”
“That’s not going to happen. It’s never happened in my life,” he responded.
Simpson smiled wryly as he told O’Neill that “it’ll be glorious to have you help; we’ll be waiting for that, thank you,” and then wished her a “merry Christmas.”
Washington Post columnist and reporter Dana Milbank covered Simpson’s encounter with O’Neill, as well as the email to Carson, writing that the former senator “deserves some slack” for his comments, which were truthful, if impertinently worded.
“He should get credit for being colorful, provocative and honest in an arena that discourages all three,” Milbank wrote in his Sept. 5 column, “America has a cow over Alan Simpson’s candor on deficits.”
“Simpson is exactly the right man for the debt commission: a dealmaker,” Milbank wrote, praising him for being a moderate Republican known for speaking just as bluntly to recalcitrant ideologues in his own party.
The day before Milbank’s column ran, a Washington Post editorial gently chided Simpson for having “a penchant for remarks that are colorful bordering on intemperate,” but the paper agreed with his fundamental points about Social Security and commended his candor.
“Dad’s background and his personality and his demeanor made him a perfect choice, along with his experience on the Iraq Study Commission,” said Simpson’s son, Colin Simpson, a Cody attorney.
Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, Colin Simpson is finishing his final term after 12 years in the Legislature. He ran unsuccessfully for governor this year amid a national anti-incumbent fervor in a state where cooperating with the Obama administration on anything — even deficit reduction — was political poison.
“Were people negative about it? Sure they were,” he said of his father’s decision to serve on the commission. But Simpson said he and his father discussed the move before any decision was made, and he backed the effort.
“It wasn’t easy for either one of us, but we both thought it was the right thing to do” for the country, he said.
“He speaks the truth, and not everyone agrees with him, and that’s what makes America great,” Simpson said of his father.
“We talked and I told him, ‘I think this thing can hurt you,’” Alan Simpson said.
“I’ve been called a Republican toady covering Obama’s ass. I’ve been called everything,” he said.
“He knew what it was. He said, ‘Dad, go ahead. This is more important for Mac and Nick,’” Alan Simpson said, referring to Colin Simpson’s sons.
Alan Simpson said he had an emotional exchange Friday with Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a commission member who voted in favor of the deficit-reduction plan.
Durbin in January will become the minority whip — the number two Democrat in the Senate — a post Simpson held for years as a Republican.
“Durbin told me the nicest thing that happened to him in this whole process was that his son called him this morning and said, ‘Thanks, pop,’” he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected]