Alan Simpson: A gadfly amid the gridlock

President Obama is channeling Jimmy Carter, according to deficit guru Alan Simpson — and that’s a good thing.

Simpson, a former Republican senator who served as co-chairman of Obama’s debt commission, said the president’s social calls to lawmakers on Capitol Hill are long overdue and remind him of more productive times in Washington.

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“What Obama just did, had dinner with those Republican senators, and then lunch with [Rep.] Paul Ryan [R-Wis.] — those are very good things, good for government, good for the nation,” Simpson said. “That’s something he should have been doing all along.”

He said past presidents, including Carter, knew they needed to engage with people on a personal level to get things done. 

“It’s something every president I served under did, and Obama hasn’t until now. Casual meetings, talking to both sides, just talking. It loosens things up, gets the juices going, makes it easier to deal with the big issues. These meetings are a good move. This is how it should work. It’s how it worked in the past.”

He reminisced about how Carter had invited him and several other Republican senators to the White House in 1979 for a meeting on SALT II, his nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Simpson had just been elected to Congress, and remembered being surprised and flattered by the attention.

An even bigger surprise came a few days later, when Carter invited him back to the residence for an informal one-on-one discussion.

“I remember walking back from the White House that night, thinking, ‘What a great country! A freshman legislator from Wyoming, and I’ve just been meeting with the president of the United States!’ ”

Simpson, 81, has seen a lot during his more than three decades in Washington. He was inspired to enter politics by the plain-dealing of his father, Milward Simpson, also a U.S. senator and one-time governor of Wyoming, and has become one of the leading voices for a “grand bargain” to pay down the nation’s debts.

Known for his salty wit and blunt style, the former senator sat down recently with The Hill for a wide-ranging interview on sequestration, the Tea Party and the constraints of today’s “ultra-partisanship.”

Simpson recalled the mistrust that he encountered among lawmakers and policy experts who served on Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010, a panel that he led alongside Democratic co-chairman Erskine Bowles, former President Clinton’s chief of staff. 

“There was no trust among the members,” Simpson recalled. “It was nuts. I told Erskine I’d about had it. It took three months to establish trust among us. And that’s the problem in this whole town. Trust, there isn’t any! And it’s not only between the parties, it’s intra-mural. People in the same party don’t trust each other. It’s no wonder nothing gets done.”

He said the panel operated under the notion that every avenue for reducing the nation’s debt should get a fair hearing.  

“We knew there was no easy way out, and that everything had to be on the table,” Simpson said. “We could not spend our way out of this hole, or cut our way out, or tax our way out. We had to have a responsible, inclusive approach. The choice was shared sacrifice or go broke.” 

After more than eight months of deliberations, the commission presented a plan in November 2010 to reduce deficits by $3.8 trillion over 10 years through a 3-to-1 mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. 

The proposal never received an up-or-down vote in Congress because only 11 of the 18 commissioners backed it, falling short of the 14 members needed to trigger congressional action.

The four Democrats who voted against the recommendations were concerned about cuts to entitlement programs, while the three Republican nays were concerned with increased taxes and a failure to revamp healthcare spending, Simpson said.

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“I predicted we would be savaged by everyone for those recommendations, and we were, because we dealt with everything,” Simpson said. “Raising revenues, cutting fat from Defense, dealing with Social Security. It’s madness not to do anything about Social Security. It’s only going to get worse.”

Simpson and Bowles called their plan a “starting point for a serious national conversation” on the debt and deficit and the compromises needed to deal with them. They wrote in the introduction to their 2010 report that the “era of debt denial is over.”

But after the commission disbanded, Washington tried and failed multiple times to reach a deficit pact. The impasse resulted in the sequester, an across-the-board cut to government spending that leaders on both sides of the aisle did not want, and that Obama said would never happen.

“They never dreamed sequester would actually happen, but now it’s here,” Simpson said.

“They dug themselves this hole. Then, they did not heed the first rule about finding yourself in a hole. No, they went right on digging.”

Simpson knows full well the political pressures weighing on lawmakers and the president. With the conservative triumph at the polls in 2010 and the Tea Party ascendancy, to champion the Bowles-Simpson plan “would have been toxic for Obama,” he said. 

“And here we are,” Simpson said. “Indiscriminate cuts, which do not address the main drivers of the debt.”

Simpson and Bowles rolled out a new plan this year — not, they said, to replace their original proposal, but to simply avoid sequestration, which both called “stupid, stupid, stupid.” Lawmakers ignored it.

He lamented the “ultra-partisanship” that is crippling policy-making and feeding “the wave of distrust throughout this country.”

“The Tea Party members, they’re not here to limit government. They’re here to get rid of government, which makes no sense.”

On the other hand, any time someone brings up reforming Social Security or Medicare, “liberals react like we’re throwing old ladies off the roof,” he said.

Bowles and Simpson are now consultants for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a D.C.-based think tank, and oversee the Moment of Truth Project, which is dedicated to keeping the Bowles-Simpson plan alive and continuing the “national conversation.”

“Maybe,” Simpson said, “with the president and the Republicans beginning to talk, they will take up their responsibilities and make the painful choices, and lead the nation, like they’re supposed to do.”   

“We did our job. We told them, ‘Here’s where you are — now what the hell are you going to do about it?’ ”