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By Jonathan Nicholson
Dec. 4 — A group of 18 people—U.S. senators, representatives, a head of a Fortune 500 company, the president of a major union, a former ad executive, and a Clinton-era budget director—were tasked five years ago with drafting proposals that could garner bipartisan support to put the nation on a sound fiscal footing.
Now that Washington faces yet another confrontation over budget issues with the 2016 spending bill, some veterans of the Bowles-Simpson commission say the plan put forward by its bipartisan co-chairmen, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Erskine Bowles, the Clinton administration's White House chief of staff, was a missed opportunity and the government's fiscal position would be in better shape if it had been adopted.
The experience of the Simpson-Bowles panel—formally known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—may serve as a cautionary one for policy makers on the cost of waiting. After it, there were a series of starts and stops to negotiating deficit reduction, skirmishes that produced victories for both sides but that did little to change the overall long-term fiscal trajectory of the government.
In that sense, Bowles-Simpson was a failure. But, from a political standpoint, both Republicans and Democrats gained from Bowles-Simpson's lack of success. Democrats, to Republicans' continued chagrin, have mostly kept the federal entitlement programs, which make up the bulk of annual spending, off the chopping block. And Republicans, frustrating Democrats, have largely avoided major tax increases, outside of the boost on high-income households enacted after President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012.
So, was it a mistake to have not followed Bowles-Simpson? The answer depends on whom you ask.
“The answer is yes—it was a mistake not to have embraced the Bowles-Simpson solution and to enact it,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). Crapo was one of three Republican senators, the others being Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Judd Gregg (N.H.), who supported the plan.
“If we had been five years down the road on our plan, we would be in far better fiscal shape today and we would be in far better economic shape today. And I'm confident that the entire picture, the economic picture of the United States basis, whether you're looking at it from a debt crisis perspective or whether you're looking at it from an economic performance other way, we would be in much better shape.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who opposed the plan, said a different balance of revenue and cuts was needed. “The reluctance of this Republican-dominated Congress to deal with questions of revenue and their extreme opposition to that is what has led to the problems we're facing right now.”
In an interview in November 2014, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), one of three House Republicans who opposed Bowles-Simpson, said he did not regret his choice. At the time, Ryan said the mix of spending cuts to revenue increases, once adjusted for the baseline, leaned too much on revenue.
“No, I don't have any regrets about my actions there, whatsoever,” he said.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who supported the plan, said it would still be the measure for future budget talks. “I still believe that we have responsibilities, as Bowles-Simpson said, for a long-term plan for the future of Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid. That's not the most popular position in my caucus, but I think it's realistic,” he said.
Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a former Senate Budget Committee chairman who left Congress in 2013 and is a plan supporter, blamed House Republicans largely for its failure.
“The fundamental problem was the House of Representatives, especially our Republican friends there,” he said. But some Democrats too.”
While Republicans have pointed to President Obama's unwillingness to embrace the plan strongly as a reason not to support it, Conrad said that was a pretense. “It's disingenuous. Anything he was for, they're against,” he said.
Still, even if Bowles-Simpson had gotten the support of 14 of the 18 members of the commission, instead of the 11 who ultimately supported it, it would still have had to clear the House and Senate. Schakowsky said the 2011 experience of the budget “supercommittee” charged with trying to find ways to avoid across-the-board spending cuts known as sequester showed the political appetite for Bowles-Simpson was not there. “Let's remember that even with the pressure of the special committee and the threat of sequester, it wasn't done,” she said.
Five years later, Crapo said he still brings up the plan to other lawmakers, but the attitude is different now.
“All the time. All the time. And it's frustrating,” Crapo said.
“Following Bowles-Simpson, you'll recall the Gang of Six days. We had a growing, a bipartisan commitment to making the bold decisions that were called for by Bowles-Simpson,” he said. “Events have changed that political dynamic and have taken the wind out of those sails somewhat. And a lot of people have moved back and say, ‘We can't do it comprehensively, we have to do it one piece at a time' or ‘This problem or that problem has come up' and say, ‘Well, it's not time yet to get back into discussing the bold reforms that we need to be doing. And I believe that we need to get back.”
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was not on the commission but is a prominent economic policy voice in Republican circles as president of the American Action Network, said both sides got to avoid what they didn't like, but at a cost.
“The political system worked in that narrow sense, but we are worse off because we didn't do Bowles-Simpson or anything else like that. If you look at CBO's long-term budget outlook, it's no longer long term, it's here, it's now. What we've done is waste five years,” Holtz-Eakin said. “So I don't think anyone should applaud five years of inaction, even if it carried with it some partisan political victories.”
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