Opinion: With debt talks foundering, Simpson-Bowles suddenly in vogue

As the nation approaches the “fiscal cliff” there is one gold standard for all sides in the debt debate – the Simpson-Bowles Commission.

The latest burst of interest in Simpson-Bowles is akin to having that old disco-era dress in the basement come back in fashion again.

The commission’s findings — long abandoned — are suddenly the thinking-man’s solution to the debt crisis.

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There is shiny new politics involved, too.

The Democrats have added confidence after their election victories and feel they can sell their base a deal that includes spending cuts.

And Republicans love the idea that Simpson-Bowles gives them one more chance to bash President Obama.

Republicans, including former vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), have long condemned President Obama for not packaging the panel’s recommendations as a bill and sending it to Congress for a vote.

That predictably leads Democrats to ask why Republicans, most notably the same Paul Ryan who is chairman of House Budget committee, also abandoned the commission by voting against its recommendations even though he was a member of the commission.

How times change.

Now Republicans and Democrats are finding new appeal in the old ideas in the Simpson-Bowles proposal.

This is especially true with every politician trying to get out of town before Christmas.

It is the non-political solution. Republicans and Democrats can blame a third party for any tax increases and spending cuts: Simpson-Bowles.

In this new world, the chairmen of the commission — Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, the former Clinton White House Chief of Staff — are seen as Washington ‘wise men’ with no political agenda as they craft a deal.

Last week, Bowles raised the stakes by telling reporters he was pessimistic about politicians making a deal on their own.

He put the odds of Congress not going over the fiscal cliff at only “one in three.”

“They say that you’ve got to have a crisis to get anything done in this town,” Bowles said at a news conference, “and we’ve got one.”

Another member of the commission, Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who voted for the final report, is urging his fellow Democrats to act in the spirit of Simpson-Bowles and compromise on spending cuts and entitlements.

“Progressives cannot afford to stand on the sidelines in this fiscal cliff debate and to deny the obvious,” Durbin said in a speech to the Center for American Progress last week.

“Important critical decisions will be made soon that will affect this country for 10 years. I think we need to be part of this conversation, which means we need to be open to some topics and some issues that are painful and hard for us to talk about.”

All of this leads to a simple question: What was in the original Simpson-Bowles plan?

To review, it included a mix of higher taxes, reduced spending and long-term structural reforms to Medicare and Social Security.

But that deal failed to get the super-majority vote from its 18 committee members.

When nine commission members — five Democrats and four Republicans — voted against the plan, it failed to meet the threshold required for it to be automatically sent to Congress for a vote.

The package that failed to get the commission’s support included higher taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

It also eliminated nearly every tax deduction for individuals and corporations, with only a few exceptions for home mortgage interest and charitable contributions.

That would have produced about $800 billion in new tax revenue. The plan also raised Republicans’ blood pressure by calling for cutting defense spending by $973 billion over the next decade.

For Democrats the Simpson-Bowles plan required them to bite their tongue and agree to significant spending cuts in domestic programs.

For example, Medicare and Social Security will become means-tested programs and not entitlements for everyone. Benefits given to higher-income families will be reduced over time.

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) used the outlines of the Simpson-Bowles plan in July 2011 when they almost agreed to a “grand bargain” to cut the federal deficit.

According to Time magazine, the president was open to a hike in the “age of Medicare eligibility and to change the way the consumer price index is calculated for Social Security recipients, to reduce the annual inflation adjustments.”

However, that deal got killed.

Democrats blamed Tea Party freshmen in the House who refused to go along with the Speaker’s call for increased tax revenues.

Republicans blamed the president for his reluctance to take political heat from fellow Democrats for putting entitlement cuts on the table.

For all the warm memories of Simpson-Bowles, it lacked a political component.

There was never any way a debt deal could be sealed without the public being angrier over failure to make deal than they are about what is in the deal.

A CNN poll from last week found 45 percent of Americans would hold congressional Republicans responsible for failure to get a deal done while 34 percent would hold president responsible. Another 15 percent would say both are responsible.

Yes, Republicans have more to lose politically if Congress goes over the fiscal cliff. 

But Democrats will shoulder blame too. That is why embracing Simpson-Bowles looks so good to so many right now. It insulates both sides from political fallout.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.