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

WASHINGTON – With another fight over the federal budget deficit looming, the former co-chairmen of the Bowles-Simpson commission began briefing lawmakers last week on their latest plan to get the economy back on track and the nation’s debt under control.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former chief of staff under President Clinton Erskine Bowles released a plan on Friday that would end cuts under sequestration and put debt on a downward path as a share of the economy.

Simpson and Bowles headed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, more commonly known as the “Simpson-Bowles” commission – created in 2010 by President Obama to identify policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run. Their names have become synonymous with deficit-cutting, as the two men have been advocating their cocktail of spending cuts and revenue increases for years.

The new plan includes $740 billion in increased revenue over the next decade and a higher eligibility age for Medicare – options that both Republicans and Democrats have respectively rejected.

“By picking up on where budget negotiations left off last December, we have crafted a plan that we believe could be enacted into law over the course of this year, and would represent a tremendous step forward in putting our nation on a fiscally sustainable course,” Bowles and Simpson write in the report.

The commission’s final report outlines a four-step plan to eliminate the debt deficit. The first step was to reduce discretionary spending, which according to the report happened in 2011. The second step was to raise taxes for the wealthiest Americans as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal. Step three, which would occur over the next 10 years, completes the job of “putting debt on a downward path” through a mix of healthcare reform, mandatory spending reductions, tax reform, and wholesale government reform. The final step would provide additional recommendations to “put entitlement programs on a fiscally sustainable course.”

“We’ve done the easy stuff. We’ve capped discretionary spending and we’ve raised taxes on the rich. We’ve done the stupid stuff, such as sequester. Now we’ve got to do the hard stuff,” Bowles said at an event unveiling the plan’s details on Friday at the Newseum in Washington.

Under the updated proposal, debt would fall from 76.4 percent of GDP in 2013 to 69.3 percent of GDP in 2023. Currently, the debt as a share of GDP is shrinking, but the new plan would speed up the process of deficit reduction.

The plan aims at reducing the deficit by $5.2 trillion over 10 years, with most of those savings coming from spending reductions. It would raise $740 billion in new revenue, mostly by reforming the tax code. Specifically, the plan directs Congress to produce comprehensive tax reform to bring down individual and corporate rates while reducing the deficit.

The plan also calls for cuts to future Social Security benefits in a similar fashion as proposed by President Obama through the “chained CPI” – an alternative measure for inflation that takes into account the way consumers change their habits of consumption as price changes. For instance, if beer gets more expensive and the price of wine stay the same, consumers will tend to buy more wine and less beer.

Medicare eligibility age would increase and subject a larger portion of the population to means testing. Bowles and Simpson want to reform Medicare and Medicaid by reducing drug costs, reducing provider payments, and increasing income-related premiums.

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.