Let Bowles, Simpson finish their job

There is a great deal of discussion about how, after this November’s election, there will occur in December the Mother of All Lame-Duck sessions by Congress. There is considerable legitimacy to this expectation. 

It is fairly obvious that no legislative action of any significance is going to occur prior to the election. This is typical in a presidential year, but this year the forces for staying in neutral appear to be even stronger.

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Neither side seems to feel any pressure or incentive to make things happen on the critical issues that face the country. This inaction seems foolish. If you are an incumbent this year, you are probably in trouble.

The reason is that the American people are extremely frustrated with the failures of Washington and, as a result, there is dramatic momentum to vote against anyone presently in office. The usual “throw the bums out” mentality is this year on steroids and driving the decision process of most voters today.

This should mitigate for action on something if you are an incumbent serving in Washington because the only way to mute anti-incumbent feeling is to at least look like you’re trying to govern.

Ironically, just the opposite appears to be happening and nothing seems to be getting done. Even reasonably actionable issues like correcting our energy policy and overhauling our corporate tax laws, both areas where bipartisan consensus should be available, are being left to languish until after the election.

This brings us to the lame duck. Two major events will occur at the beginning of 2013 with consequences that may force Congress to act.

First is the sequester imposed by the budget deal that led to raising the debt ceiling last year which will force a cut of approximately $500 billion to $600 billion over the next 10 years in defense spending on top of the already significant cuts put in place from last summer. This is coupled with a significant further sequester on non-defense discretionary spending. Almost everyone realizes that with soldiers in the field, the defense cuts forced by the sequester would be dangerous and inappropriate. 

Second, the Bush tax rates are scheduled to expire, which would cause a tax increase affecting all Americans who are productive to the tune of between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion. 

These two events, if allowed to go forward as proposed, would bludgeon the economic recovery and almost assure a relapse of the economy into some level of contraction, possibly even a renewed recession.

While the debt reduction that would result from these spending cuts and tax increases is needed to reduce our disastrous debt course, the manner in which they will occur will be counterproductive and would actually aggravate, to a large degree, the long-term debt problem by slowing economic growth. 

What is needed is a more orderly and thoughtful course that produces the long-term savings without the draconian and ham-handed actions currently proposed.

The only viable, bipartisan vehicle that has been put forward to produce such an orderly reduction in our debt is the plan offered by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget does a great deal, but it is partisan and therefore not legislatively viable. President Obama has proposed a few ideas, but they are also partisan and not viable.

The Simpson-Bowles commission should reconvene before the crush of the lame- duck session. It should start where it left off with the fiscal menu it put on the table to cut $4 trillion from the debt over 10 years.

It should, however, be ready to expand beyond its original proposal, incorporating ideas from the president and Ryan, and adjust and update the original proposal. It should prepare a template that will give this lame-duck session, on which political pressure will be intense, an opportunity to act outside the partisan boxes that will frustrate serious action.

The commission should set out a menu that will allow the participants in the lame duck to actually get something done by moving forward on a bipartisan plan that can avoid the chaos of the sequester and tax hikes while guaranteeing long-term fiscal restraint and progress on the debt.

Bowles and Simpson may be the only two people in Washington who have the credibility and track record to get it done. And it desperately needs to happen.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.