Vol. 46, No. 3

In this Edition

With the 2012 election less than 100 days away, perhaps it’s a good time to make another prediction — if Barack Obama wins a second term as President, one of the first things he’s going to do is call Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles into the Oval Office and tell them to: “Get it done.” 

Q&A with Alan Simpson

The former Wyoming Senator talks about the politics of the moment and why the plan he coauthored with Erskine Bowles represents the best hope of reducing the debt before it is too late.

The Moment of Truth… Once Again

At a time when most reports in Washington gather dust, the Simpson-Bowles report is gathering steam. A look at what’s in the report, and why it is receiving attention 18 months after it was released.

Avoiding a Global Depression

With America headed toward a fiscal cliff, the former head of the Government Accountability Office argues that Congress and the President must overcome political dysfunction to avert a crisis.

TPP: An Opportunity for American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific Economy

Potentially larger than NAFTA, this new trade agreement is critical to American prospects for expanded export markets, yet is largely unknown.

A New Trade Relationship with Europe?

The trade issues dividing the U.S. and EU are not new. What is new is our common concern about the challenge posed by China.

What we need now: A Joint Committee on Congressional Reform

While partisanship has clearly risen, one of the more chronic problems with congressional decision-making is procedural dysfunction.

The Edge of the Fiscal Cliff

As America teeters on the brink of a debt crisis, it is critical nothing be done that would force the American people over the edge.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Republican Governors

With voters set to elect governors in 11 states, a professor and former statehouse aide looks at the qualities that make up a good leader.

Virginia in the Balance

In 2000, the presidential election came down to the votes of one state – Florida. In 2012, the election may hinge on the votes of the Old Dominion.

Ripon Profile of Luis G. Fortuño

The Governor of Puerto Rico discusses the importance of fiscal discipline and his hero in American politics.

Q&A with Alan Simpson

“This baby is the only game in town.”

Alan Simpson has worn many hats in his career. From soldier in the United States Army to Member of the United States Senate to Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard, he has devoted his life to serving his country and serving others. But perhaps his greatest legacy will be the job he has held the past few years.

As Co-Chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Simpson has helped bring America’s growing debt crisis to the forefront of the policy debate. Along with his Co-Chairman, Erskine Bowles, he has also put forward a bold plan to reduce the debt and get government spending under control. The plan was released in December 2010.

The fact that the Nation is still talking about it 18 months after the fact is a testament not just to the plan’s content, but to the plan’s author. Indeed, with his mixture of straight-talk, intellect, and humor, Alan Simpson has done for reducing the debt what Ross Perot did for reducing the deficit in 1992 – made it a national priority.

THE FORUM spoke with Senator Simpson about his efforts in this regard and the state of politics, policy, and humor in Washington, DC.


FORUM: At a time when reports in Washington usually gather dust, the Simpson-Bowles report is once again getting attention and seems to be gathering steam. Why do you think that is? 

SIMPSON: Well, it’s the only one that irritates everybody, and it’s the only one that will work because we’re very specific. We spent seven months at it, and received a vote of five Democrats and five Republicans and one independent. I mean, how can you do any better than that in the tortured system that’s going on out there now? And you have a range, from Dick Durbin — who’s a hell of a good guy and is as partisan as can be — to Tom Coburn, who’s a hell of a good guy and partisan as he can be.

We’re doing it for our children. We’re not just watching people do it to get reelected. There’s so much B.S. and mush. 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 horse laugh. They’re a fake!

FORUM: Assuming nothing gets done on the issue between now and the election, how important is it that the next President – whether it’s Barack Obama or Mitt Romney – endorse your plan or something very similar? 

SIMPSON: Nobody’s going to do anything before the election. They all worship the God of reelection. There will be nothing concrete, or even a semblance of clearness or authenticity as to how you restore the solvency of Social Security — which we were very clear about. We’re not hurting young people, old people, or throwing bed pans out of the hospices.

There’s everything in there to protect the most vulnerable, from a five percent bump up for people 80-85 to a minimum benefit that guarantees full-career workers are paid at least 125% of poverty. You can’t even raise the retirement age to sixty-eight by the year 2050 without the AARP mumbling that poor old seniors will never figure it out.

Nobody’s going to do anything before the election. They all worship the God of reelection.

It’s just going to happen, and that’s where the markets will come in. And they don’t care who’s running for President. They don’t care about what party is running the shop. They’re interested in their money, and they’re going to say: “You obviously are a dysfunctional government. Therefore, you’ve done nothing. Therefore, we want more money for our money.” Then interest rates will go up, and inflation will go up. And the guy that gets hurt the worst will be “the little guy.” What hypocrisy!

FORUM: Why do you think President Obama declined to endorse your plan when it was released in December of 2010? The Simpson-Bowles Commission, after all, was his idea.

SIMPSON: It’s easy to see. He was in political mode, and he knew when he touched entitlement reform – which we do — his base would have ripped him to shreds. “How could you do this to poor old seniors? How could you do something with the entitlements?” They would have been shrieking and crying.

And at that stage of the political wars, anything he would have voted for, the Republicans would have come together and said, “Vote against it.”

FORUM: A version of the Simpson-Bowles plan received 38 votes when it was voted on in the House earlier this year. Does this mean the plan is more popular with the public than politicians? If so, how do you get the politicians to follow the lead of the people and support the plan as well? 

SIMPSON: We counseled them not to bring it to a vote because we didn’t yet have it in legislative language. Now we do have it in legislative language. You have about 47 U.S. Senators mucking around in it from both parties. You have over 100 House members from both parties looking at it, looking at the language, talking about it. That’s going on right now. The public isn’t aware of it, but that’s what’s going on.

This baby is the only game in town. There’s nowhere else to go. You can go to us or parts of Domenici-Rivlin or the Gang of Six plan or the work of the Super Committee and Obama-Boehner. But the framework has got to be along the lines of what Erskine and I and nine other brave souls recommended in 2010 – cuts to wasteful spending in defense and non-defense, health care cost controls, Social Security solvency measures, and tax reform that lowers rates but gets more revenues.

This baby is the only game in town. There’s nowhere else to go.

Some people have asked us to come back for a hearing. Erskine and I say, “For what? We’re not coming back for a hearing just to watch people come up to us and say, “Save us from ourselves!”

And that’s what they do. We say “Save yourselves. We gave you the blueprint. If we haven’t pissed every group off, tell us the name of your group and we’ll piss them off!”

FORUM: To be even more specific, how do you get Republicans to sign on in support of a tax increase when they signed a pledge saying they would oppose that very thing? 

SIMPSON: The first thing, anybody who would sign a pledge in ’86 or ’88 when unemployment was 3.8% and inflation was near nothing and everything was different, should really never have sold their souls for something somewhere down the road. And if they did, they’re really pretty poor legislators in my mind to do that.

Things change. Lincoln himself made a great quote. Douglas was nailing him for changing his mind, and he said something like – “If I didn’t have the ability to change my mind when circumstances changed that are critical to the United States of America, I shouldn’t be in public life.”

So dear old Tom Coburn stuck in an amendment to take six billion bucks out of ethanol subsidies, which passed the Senate. Grover called that a tax increase. If that’s the kind of ridiculous intellect we have to deal with, you ain’t ever going to get out this box.

Anyway, Grover [Norquist] will wander the Earth in his white robes, but he’s losing strength. But the real thing is you don’t have to raise taxes! You just go into that tax code and begin to pull out $1.1 trillion of tax expenditures, most of which are used by only 20% of the American people. You pull those out, and that’s where you get your bucks.

So dear old Tom Coburn stuck in an amendment to take six billion bucks out of ethanol subsidies, which passed the Senate. Grover called that a tax increase. If that’s the kind of ridiculous intellect we have to deal with, you ain’t ever going to get out this box.

FORUM: Why has politics become so uncompromising in Washington, DC? 

SIMPSON: Well, people run against Washington. They say, “I want to go to Washington to change that culture of adulterers, and moneychangers, and sons of bitches, and people who do nothing. Send me to Washington!” Well, it sounds like you’re sending them in – like St. George into the dragon’s mouth! So Washington has become a curse word. Yet they get there, and the first thing they do is try to figure out how to “do an earmark” or how to get something for the folks back home because they’re told to go get that, but also to complain about the government, and you’ve got to do both of those with the same tongue in your mouth. That’s what constituents tell them to do, and those days are pretty well over.

Then you’ve got a certain group of 82 people currently who didn’t go there just to limit government – they went there to stop government. So hang on tight. It didn’t arrive overnight. It’s not that the government in Washington doesn’t represent the American people, because all you have to do is look at your school board fighting the same way or the city council scrapping the same way or the county commissioners scrapping the same way. What’s new?

FORUM: How important is humor in politics and how do we inject more of it into today’s political debate? 

SIMPSON: Nowadays, if you use humor, somebody will think you’re a silly-ass. They’ll say, “Boy, I heard Simpson doing this, or maybe Pat Roberts, or maybe Ted Kennedy. He’s not paying attention. He’s a silly-ass.” Well, let me tell you. I love to have people do that with me, because you pull them into the net and then drive a truck right over them.

My mother said, “Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.” You don’t find it in Washington anymore.

My mother said, “Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life.” You don’t find it in Washington anymore. And if you do find it, then this person is supposedly not taking things seriously.’ What a total error in assessment of human beings.

Humor is critical, and there’s none there now. It’s now how “to get” the other guy. And now, they get the guys in their own party. I mean, if they don’t like something, they’ll nail the guy who’s chairman of their own committee or the chairman of the other committee. They simply don’t like each other, so they won’t have the hearings that’ll make the country work. It’s nuts.