President Obama’s reelection campaign slogan is “Forward,” but any history teacher can tell you it doesn’t hurt to look backward once in a while. That’s exactly what the president did when he appointed Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles to draft a bipartisan plan to responsibly address the nation’s ballooning debt. The idea was that these two eminences grises would hark us back to a time when donkeys and elephants acted like competitors in the marketplace of ideas, not opponents in a bloody, no-holds-barred death match.
It was a quaint idea. Turns out not even the Simpson-Bowles commission — officially called The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — could reach the 14 votes (out of 18) needed to send to Congress its own plan, published in a report called The Moment of Truth. The president handpicked the most politically palatable of their suggestions, not daring to touch Social Security reforms, and while the House of Representatives did actually display some bipartisanship regarding the document, it was to soundly reject it.
Like a zombie (if you can excuse a Halloween metaphor), the report may end up having more impact in its afterlife. Its authors are lobbying members of Congress and barnstorming the country telling Americans that, for the nation to regain fiscally sound footing, everybody left, right, and center will need to make some sacrifices. They take that message to UCSB’s Campbell Hall where they will be speaking at 8 p.m. on Thursday night in a UCSB Arts & Lectures event. In advance of their visit, former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles chatted with The Santa Barbara Independent. Following are some of their thoughts:
On newfound fame:
EB: I’ve been up and I’ve been down. You’re not going to change me much. I do feel passionate and have felt passionate for a long time about the need for long-term fiscal responsibility. … I negotiated a balanced budget agreement between speaker Gingrich, [Senate majority] leader Lott, and President Clinton, so I’ve been fighting for this cause for a long time.
On their upcoming talk at UCSB:
AS: We don’t do myths; we do math. We tell people to pull up a chair, and we don’t do B.S. We’ll try to tell you where your country is. We won’t be speaking as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans.
On the dysfunctional relationship between congressional Republicans and Democrats:
AS: We used to talk to each other, and we used to shake hands and say, “Are you ready to do some business or make something work?” And we did. Working with people on the other side of the aisle is what we did. Nowadays, people think the word “compromise” means you’re a wimp, I guess. If you can’t learn to compromise an issue without compromising yourself, you surely should never be in the legislature. And you should really never get married either.
I just think it’s growing up through the years, going to your caucus and saying, how can we goose these guys on the other side? How can we get to them? How can we give the president [a bill] we know he’s got to veto. How do we do this instead of paying attention to “How would you like to make this work?”
EB: If you look at how the House of Representatives is elected now, in almost every state today, the election for the House has already occurred. It’s in the primaries, in the spring. Not in the fall in November. They are divided up to be a safe Democratic seat or a safe Republican seat. Therefore, if you’re running in a safe Democratic seat and you want to think about doing what’s responsible in trying to make these entitlement programs sustainably solvent, then that means making some cuts that are absolutely necessary and right to do. AARP is going to run somebody against you. They are going to be well funded, and they’re probably going to win. If you are a Republican and you’re willing to talk about reforming the tax code in a way that may generate new revenue, then somebody like Grover Norquist in the Club for Growth is going to run somebody against you, and they’ll probably beat you. And so you end up — at least in the House of Representatives — with these extremes on the right and left that make far fewer people in the sensible center, and it’s more difficult to get something done.
On vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (who was on the commission but voted against the blueprint because he wanted more entitlement reform):
AS: You see, the reason he gets punched is because he’s talking about the engine that is driving this train right through America. You have to do something with health care. Health care is on automatic pilot. It’s unsustainable. It can’t work. It doesn’t matter what you call it. So Ryan grabs the big gorilla by the throat, and he gets torn to bits. He’s the only one honestly speaking about the most singular driver of debt and deficit, which is health care. When you do that, you get it in the chops.
EB: You spend nine months working with somebody, you end up knowing them pretty well. I like Paul Ryan. (I also like the president, by the way.) He didn’t grasp hold of [the Simpson-Bowles plan]. I understand why he didn’t. Paul is a sincere, honest, straightforward guy. He was very honest and straightforward with us why he didn’t vote for the plan. And he didn’t think we went far enough on health care. … He wanted more structural change. He wanted to block grant Medicaid to the states, and he wanted to change Medicare from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.
The nation may well have to go to that if we can’t control growth any other way, but that is a very big change. That’s a huge change. It could end up causing people to lose benefits or, if they keep the same benefits, pay a lot more for them. We wanted to try to find a way to control the growth without having to go to what he calls a Premium Support Plan [commonly referred to as a voucher plan]. It wasn’t like he was pulling the wool over our eyes. I think he is an honest, straightforward guy. I just don’t happen to agree with him on this subject.
On the Affordable Healthcare Act, otherwise known as Obamacare:
AS: It doesn’t bother me. You’ve got to look at everything. There isn’t a thing happening in health care right now that will work unless people feel pain. And I don’t see anybody feeling any pain lately, and if you tell them you’re going to feel pain, they’re going to tear you to bits. I just say, forget the names or the disappointments. I don’t have those. All I can tell you is health care has to be corrected or guys your age will be picking crap with the chickens when you’re 65.
EB: We did get a majority of the Republicans on the commission to vote for [our report]. And we did have six sitting U.S. Senators, three Republicans and three Democrats. All three Republicans voted for it, and two Democrats did. So we had plenty of bipartisan support. Those members of the House who voted against it did so because they felt we didn’t do enough to bring down the cost of health care. The Democrats believed that the cuts they’d already made and the pilot programs made in the Affordable Healthcare Act were enough to slow the rate of growth of health care to the rate of growth of the economy as measured by GDP plus one. We didn’t believe that, and that’s why we made $485 million worth of additional cuts. I’m very candid to say that if that is not enough to slow the rate of health care — those cuts including what was done in the Affordable Healthcare Act — then you’re going to have to take more drastic steps. And those drastic steps would include such things as a premium support plan or a single-payer plan or increasing the eligibility age.
On President Obama’s rejection of The Moment of Truth:
AS: He didn’t dare embrace it. He would have been torn to bits by his base. They would have said, “Wait a minute, you didn’t close Guantanamo and you said you would. You said you’d cut the deficit in half and you didn’t. And now you’re messing with old people? You’re messing with entitlements and by God we’ve had it with you.” And the Republicans probably would have said, if he votes for it, we’ll caucus and vote no unanimously.
EB: Was I disappointed? Yes. But do I understand? Yes. The president believed that if he had come out and endorsed our effort, that he would have been savaged by the left, and the Republicans — Al and I will talk about this [at UCSB] — would have come out against him. So it would have gone nowhere. His belief was that if he used it as the framework for the discussions he had over the summer with Speaker Boehner, that that was the best chance of getting something actually done. Of course that didn’t work. If it had worked, he would have looked like a political genius. But it didn’t.
On everyone else’s rejection of it:
AS: Nobody’s going to touch this thing because we hit everybody. We had 105 groups testify that this country was on an unsustainable course, unconscionable, and before they finished their remarks at the end, they said don’t touch ours. Well, how the hell do you think you’re gonna get there? We figured we’ve done our job if we pissed off everyone in America, and we’ve done a beautiful job of that.
On the “fiscal cliff,” or the spending cuts and tax hikes that will result if Congress can’t reach a debt-reduction deal by December 31:
EB: This is $7.7 trillion of economic events that are going to hit the nation in the gut on December 31: expiration of the Bush tax cuts, expiration of the payroll tax [holiday], expiration of a patch that’s put on the Alternative Minimum Tax, expiration of unemployment compensation, the advent of “sequester” which is these mindless, senseless, across-the-board cuts that came about because of the failure of the Super Committee. No businessperson would ever make cuts across the board. You try to go in there surgically and cut the things that have the least adverse effect on productivity. All these things are happening then, and the economic effect of them happening next year is enough to cause two million people to lose their jobs, unemployment to go over 9 percent, enough to throw us back into recession. That’s crazy. Why members of Congress would want to risk that is beyond me when we don’t have to.
On speaking in plain English:
AS: I grew up in Wyoming with a very earthy father and a beautiful, talented, charming mother who was always wondering about dad’s language a bit, but I worked with irrigators and field hands and cowboys. You wake up in the morning, you can see about 60 miles, you really are immune to bullshit. And you need that in politics. And that’s a joyous place to be.
Sometimes you use charts and PowerPoints. People don’t always understand that. I can do Shakespeare as well as I can do cowboy talk. I love Shakespeare. I can quote a great deal of it by heart if anybody wants to listen. But I also know lyrical profanity. And sometimes that’s the only way to get people to hear what you’re saying, sadly enough.
EB: I think a reason people haven’t communicated properly about it is political fear. If a Democrat says to their constituents that we’re going to have to make some cuts to Medicare to make it sustainably solid — in other words, we’ve overpromised what we can deliver — or if a Republican says we need to raise revenue, their chances of winning the primary are not very good. As long as they worship the great God of Reelection, it’s going to be difficult. The fact that they can’t communicate is a fear of telling the truth. On the first page, I wrote, “The problems are real, the solutions are painful, there’s no easy way out.” And that’s the truth. That’s because my generation has kicked the can down the road for way too long. Now the chickens have come to roost.
On the tenacity of the commission report:
AS: It’s like a stink bomb at a garden party. It ain’t going away. You hear everybody talking about it. So if they’re talking about it, they must obviously have some need to embrace it. And then they look at it and say, “Oh my God, wait a minute, I don’t want that. That’s whole mortgage interest deduction, employer health care, Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance, oil and gas.” You know, what’s new? If you’re listening to some jerk politician standing on his or her hind legs saying, “We can get this done without touching precious Medicare, precious Medicaid, precious defense, and precious social security,” those people are fake!
EB: We’re going to get this thing done. I think the American people are well ahead of the members of Congress, and I guarantee you that after we talk to this group in Santa Barbara, they’ll understand this and they’ll understand it clearly, and we’ll have a lot more people who will want to come together to encourage their members of Congress to make these tough decisions.