The Hill Exclusive: Debt leaders call for more cuts to avert fiscal 'disaster'

Neither the White House budget nor the congressional Republican spending plan are focused on the long-term drivers of the budget deficit, the co-chairmen of President Obama’s debt commission write in Thursday’s issue of The Hill. 

In an op-ed, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Democrat Erskine Bowles write that by focusing “primarily on domestic discretionary spending, neither plan goes at all far enough to deal with our medium- or long-term fiscal challenges.”

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Simpson and Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Clinton, argue that no serious budget initiative can ignore dealing with Social Security and Medicare, and that Obama must lead a bipartisan effort to tackle the issue or things will just get worse.

“The nation desperately needs bipartisan leadership grounded in shared sacrifice, not politics as usual,” the op-ed states. “Cynics argue that such comprehensive reform is politically impossible. To the contrary, it is the only sensible way to put in place policies that can prevent a fiscal disaster.”

Simpson and Bowles led a presidential commission that recommended entitlement and tax reforms as well as cuts to defense and non-security discretionary spending that would have reduced the deficit by almost $4 trillion over the next decade. 

By comparison, the budget released this week by Obama, who asked for patience on the deficit during a Tuesday press conference, did not include significant entitlement or tax reforms and would reduce the deficit by $1.1 trillion.

The chairmen note that 11 members of the 18-person commission supported the panel’s recommendations, including five Republicans, five Democrats and one Independent. Bowles and Simpson needed 14 votes to get their report adopted for probable up-or-down votes in Congress. 

In a separate op-ed in The Hill on Thursday, the leaders of another bipartisan commission that recommended a $6 trillion budget-cutting plan urged Obama to show more leadership on the deficit. 

“The president must lead. He must make clear, to both Congress and the public, that the United States faces a problem that could turn our great nation into a second-rate power. No one else can lead the charge,” write Alice Rivlin, a former Clinton administration budget director and a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission, and former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). 


The cuts in Obama’s current budget proposal “would provide just a temporary reprieve from rising deficits and debt that would return in full force later on,” Rivlin and Domenici wrote. 

Rivlin and Domenici proposed a debt-reduction plan last November that, like the debt commission’s recommendations, would have decreased entitlement benefits and raised taxes as part of a comprehensive package.

“Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on our debt not only will drive longer-term deficits and debt, they eventually will squeeze out spending for everything else — from defense to homeland security, education to research, law enforcement to food safety,” the two wrote. “That will leave the government without the funds to protect the nation, address critical needs and respond to national emergencies.”

Simpson and Bowles still hope their recommendations will receive consideration. 

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A bipartisan group of senators led by Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is working on legislation that would be based on the commission’s work. The group met Tuesday to try to move forward — its strategy appears to be to release a draft after the battle over spending for the current fiscal year fades. 

Conrad has publicly said he and his committee might have to take leadership on getting the nation’s finances in order. The president’s budget office projected a $1.6 trillion deficit for this year, and Congress is expected to vote this spring on a measure to raise the country’s debt ceiling above $14.3 trillion.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) this week promised the GOP will tackle the issue of entitlement reform when it presents its 2012 budget proposal in the coming weeks. 

Separately, Senate Republicans on the Budget Committee during a Tuesday hearing told White House Budget Director Jacob Lew that they want to join a debt negotiation if the president leads it.

 “We will make the tough votes,” Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said.

 “I hope that you’ll take that message back to the president, that we’re willing to join him so that neither side is taking as much political heat as would normally be taken in a situation like this,” Ensign said.

 “Tell me where I need to go and who I need to meet with about finding a way to save Social Security from what I think is an unacceptable demise,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

 Lew told the committee that to have a debt deal, “developing that relationship of trust is the key to there being success.”