Congress, the president need to step up to painful choices ahead on budget

Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, House Republicans have put forward their own plan to bring domestic discretionary spending down to 2008 levels.

When the president appointed us to serve as co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, our goal was to put forward an honest plan that would start an adult conversation in Washington. We were encouraged that the president’s budget incorporated several of the specific proposals in our report and expressed the president’s interest in continuing the debate we began on tax reform and Social Security reform, while beginning a process that puts our nation back on sound financial footing. Now it is incumbent upon him and leaders in Congress to provide the leadership necessary to create an environment in which a serious discussion can occur.


The president is right — if America is to be competitive in this new knowledge-based global economy, we must invest in education, infrastructure and high-value-added research in a fiscally responsible manner.

But House Republicans are also right — spending is out of control, and there is no way possible to address our burgeoning debt without real spending cuts. That means finding ways to make government perform more efficiently, while scaling back or even eliminating certain government functions altogether.

Yet by focusing primarily on domestic discretionary spending, neither plan goes at all far enough to deal with our medium- or long-term fiscal challenges. 

With the Fiscal Commission, we spent 10 months closely studying the cold, hard facts. Together, we came to the unavoidable conclusions that the problem is real, the solution will be painful, there is no easy way out and everything must be on the table. We must look to cut spending everywhere we find it. There is no way to put the budget on a sustainable path without addressing the big four — Social Security, healthcare, defense and the tax code. 

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.

Our commission’s plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade won the support of 11 out of 18 of our commissioners — five Republicans, five Democrats, and one Independent. A 60-plus percent margin passes any legislation in Washington.

Our plan did cut and restrain domestic discretionary spending, but it went much further. It brought defense spending under control, slowed the growth in healthcare spending and cut spending elsewhere in the budget. It made Social Security solvent for 75 years and beyond through a combination of progressive benefit changes, adjustments to the payroll tax and gradual increases to the retirement age. And our plan overhauled the tax code, reforming or eliminating most tax breaks and loopholes in order to dramatically lower tax rates and reduce the deficit at the same time.

A comprehensive approach is necessary not only to match the magnitude of the problem, but to allow for the tradeoffs and balance necessary to reach a bipartisan agreement. We can attest to the fact that bipartisan commission members were willing to accept painful choices in areas they very much cared about only if everyone had skin in the game.

The Fiscal Commission’s plan can serve as the starting point; the ending point must be something equally ambitious and with broad enough support to ensure passage. We surely do not pretend to have all the answers, and none of the commission members who voted for our plan support every element of it. All we ask is that the debate be guided by the “Becerra Rule” we followed in the commission — don’t shoot down an idea without putting forward a better idea in its place. 

Reaching an agreement will require a serious effort on the part of the leaders in Congress and the administration to develop enough trust and mutual respect to work together at reaching principled compromise. If policymakers are willing to come together with the goal of putting this country on a sustainable path, we are confident they can reach an agreement and that they will readily have the American people behind them.

Already, a growing number of Republicans and Democrats from both Houses have expressed to us, and in some cases to the public, that they are ready to support an ambitious package of tax and spending reforms — as long as everyone is in it together. The nation desperately needs bipartisan leadership grounded in shared sacrifice, not politics as usual. Americans are counting on us to put politics aside, pull together — not pull apart — and agree on a plan to live within our means and make America strong for the long haul.

Bowles and Simpson served as co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.