CODY — When former Sen. Alan Simpson first joined Erskine Bowles, former Clinton White House chief of staff, as co-chairs of a bipartisan commission created to find ways to reduce the nation’s budget deficit, he joked that it was a “suicide mission.”
“It is going to be difficult, maybe a complete zero,” Simpson said in February, when President Barack Obama announced the formation of his 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
“I have no idea whether we’ll succeed, but we need to move the ball forward,” he said then.
By most measures, including his own assessment, it appears nine months later that Simpson has not only survived the suicide mission, but achieved some of its main objectives.
“I feel very satisfied. We have changed the national debate, all 18 of us,” he said by telephone Friday while waiting for a flight in Denver, on the way home from Washington, D.C., to Cody.
Eleven commission members voted Friday to endorse the recommendations outlined in The Moment of Truth, as the 59-page report is titled. While that’s less than the 14 votes required to send the plan to Congress for a vote, it’s a larger consensus than many pundits had expected from the process.
“Fourteen (votes) was never a figure we thought we could ever get. And the good thing is, even those people who voted no said the days of deficit denial are over,” said Simpson, 79, a Republican who represented Wyoming in the Senate from 1979 to 1997.
Simpson said he was pleased with the overall reaction to the plan, which calls for a combination of spending cuts, tax hikes and fundamental income tax reforms to trim nearly $3.9 trillion from federal budget deficits over the next decade.
“We set the tone for something that can never be reversed, and that’s not being dramatic,” he said.
Most commission members who did not endorse the plan presented alternative proposals for trimming trillions from future budget deficits. And because many commission members hold key leadership and budget committee positions, much of the proposal is likely to wind up in the next congressional budget package, he said.
Though commission members often disagreed on key policy points, they were all serious and respectful of the process, and came to trust each other as honest brokers, Simpson said.
“It took us months to build trust, but it was very evident in the last few days,” he said.
But there was one critical point near the end of the process when Simpson and Bowles made a strategic move that was unexpected, coming as a result of the tendency for such sensitive reports to become public before they are final.
Simpson said he and Bowles knew that the draft report had been leaked in November to at least four major news outlets, and they feared that it would soon become the subject of reports and speculation by pundits and advocates who would “distort” its recommendations.
So the two co-chairs called a surprise press conference Nov. 10, nearly three weeks ahead of schedule, to publicly release and discuss the draft.
The move allowed for early feedback and fine-tuning of the final version, although it also may have helped force the hand of some commission members who were reluctant to negotiate on key points.
A November opinion poll by Gallup found that 39 percent of Americans favor reducing deficits and the national debt as the best approach for Congress and the White House to take in dealing with the sluggish economy. The next most favored approaches, raising taxes on the wealthy and cutting taxes, were favored by 31 percent and 23 percent of respondents, respectively.
Simpson said public opinion on budget deficits and the growing debt has caused a major change in how members of Congress view their roles as elected officials.
BRINGING HOME THE BACON
“We were all trained for one purpose in the years when I started,” he said, and that was “to bring home the bacon.”
Congressional members would work their way up the ranks in seniority and seek appointments to key committees like Appropriations, which allocates federal funds.
“Now, the House guys tell me they have trouble getting members to serve on the appropriations committee,” he said. “So, those days are gone forever. That’s a tectonic shift.”
Simpson said that during deficit panel meetings, sitting members of Congress would “come up to us and say, ‘Save us from ourselves.’”
Though most in Congress won’t relish the tough votes that lie ahead in tackling budget deficits, they realize the issue can no longer be avoided, and are likely to welcome any proposal that offers ideas for solving the problem, he said.
“It’s an indigestible lump they can never avoid again, and they don’t want to,” Simpson said of the deficit issue. “It’s an irritant to everyone in the United States.”
He likened the entire process of developing the plan and pitching it to legislators to convincing a skeptical gorilla to eat a banana.
“It’s like taking a great big banana and throwing it into the gorilla cage, which is Congress. The gorilla picks it up, looks at it, peels it, plays with it, rips around on it, mashes it up a little.
“But he eats some of it, and that’s where we are now,” Simpson said.
While much of the plan has been praised as a necessarily tough approach to solving a thorny problem, parts of it have also been criticized by a broad spectrum of partisans and analysts.
Simpson said he has no illusions about how hard it will be to win broad public approval during a lingering economic downturn, despite strong support for reigning in deficits and trimming the national debt.
“Everybody’s taking a hit,” he said. “I see people in the airports and they give me a thumbs up, and I say, ‘You better get your thumb down. You ain’t seen what we’ve done to you yet.’”
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9321 or [email protected]