Simpson-Bowles, the Sequel: Lawmakers Get Lowdown on New Deficit Reduction Plan

Bowles told Newsweek on Friday morning that he had hoped for a “magic moment” in December 2012 – at a time when politicians were dueling over the “fiscal cliff” deal – that would have avoided sequestration. Now, he thinks, Congress has one last chance to get a deal done before Aug. 1 – the time when the government is expected to reach its debt limit.

“We’re trying to push both of the political parties out of their comfort zone and try to get them to make some of the tough decisions we have to make in order for America to have the kind of balance sheet we need to prosper in the future,” said Bowles.

Bowles also warned that excessive debt posed an “enormous risk factor” for governments and defended the case for aggressive deficit reduction, despite an influential paper making the same argument being labeled the product of sloppy statistical analysis last week.

In 2010, Harvard University economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff published research that argued that high government debt is associated with slow economic growth and that growth is particularly weak when gross government debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP. Last Tuesday, three economists at the University of Massachusetts published a paper arguing that research by the Harvard University duo was subject to “coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth.”

Reinhart and Rogoff’s research was widely cited by supporters of fiscal austerity measures. Simpson and Bowles asked Reinhart to testify before their deficit reduction commission in 2010. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and former vice-presidential candidate, pointed to the work by Reinhart and Rogoff in his 2013 budget.

“I know [Rogoff-Reinhart] had a worksheet error in the report – my understanding is that it does make a difference,” said Bowles. “But what it doesn’t change is the common sense and my own personal experience – in both the public and private sector – that when any organization has too much debt, that that is an enormous risk factor. If your risk goes up, people who are lending you money will want more money for their money.”

A highly polarized Congress has made reaching a budget deal a nearly impossible undertaking, which makes the chances of the new Simpson-Bowles plan gaining any traction even more unlikely. In March, the House of Representatives rejected an earlier version of the plan in a 382-38 vote.

At the event, Bowles and Simpson criticized the budget plans proposed by the House and Senate, saying those proposals were primarily “political documents” intended to score partisan points.

“The plan we are putting forward is our effort to demonstrate what needs to be done to bring our debt under control and what can be done if both sides are willing to go beyond their comfort zones to reach a bipartisan agreement,” said Bowles.