Two Wonks with One Plan About Too Much Debt
A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders
The draft deficit-reduction proposal released last week by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and retired GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming -- the co-chairmen of President Obama's bipartisan commission on reducing the national debt -- has the feel of what two wonks might draw up on cocktail napkins in a bar. It's a bit too easy for two unelected guys to hash out a plan that tells other people what they have to give up -- just to be fair.
The thing is, sometimes two smart guys in a bar make more sense than the entire Washington political establishment. There are a number of intriguing ideas in their plan to cut nearly $4 trillion from the federal deficit through 2020. It's worth more than a look.
The draft document starts by noting that Americans traditionally have been willing "to sacrifice to make our nation stronger over the long haul." I have to wonder if that remains the case.
On the left, many Democrats seem intent on dumping the entire deficit on one group -- the rich -- and the consequences to the economy be damned. House Speaker (for now) Nancy Pelosi rejected the draft as "simply unacceptable." Note: That makes the Democratic Party the team that is obstructionist and won't compromise.
The three House Republicans on the commission issued a statement that called the draft "provocative," while commending "the co-chairs for advancing the debate." You also hear Republicans complain about the deficit endlessly -- but they also seem to think they never should have to pay higher taxes.
Bowles and Simpson call for cuts of $100 billion in military and $100 billion in discretionary spending. The draft starts by calling on Washington to lead by example, with the White House and Congress shaving 15 percent off their budgets. It calls out the federal travel budget for growing by 56 percent from 2001 to 2006, even as the private sector used technology to pare travel expenses. It also targets wasteful or unnecessary spending, such as the (should have been cut sooner) Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Economic Development Administration and duplicative research funding for fossil fuels.
When he ran for president, Obama argued that eliminating earmarks won't "solve the problem" because earmarks account for a mere "0.5 percent of the total federal budget."
Bowles and Simpson are having none of that. Their draft calls for the elimination of all earmarks. Good call. If Washington can't stop burning through sums that some D.C. pols dismiss as chump change, then this country is doomed.
Mother Jones' Kevin Drum concluded that Bowles-Simpson isn't "serious" because it "turns suddenly vague and cramped" when it gets to the most fearsome driver of the deficit, Medicare.
As if to prove Drum's point, the draft has an odd take on how to pay for the "doc fix" -- a pending 23 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors and other health care providers, which both parties want to delay. Bowles-Simpson wants to pay for the "doc fix" by -- you guessed it -- cutting payments to doctors and health care providers.
The commission has until Dec. 1 to submit a final plan. First, 14 of the 18 commissioners will have to agree on one. Will they have the stamina to adopt the Bowles-Simpson suggestion to raise the retirement age from 67 to 69 by 2075? Stay tuned.
A more radioactive proposal calls for flattening income and business taxes by lowering rates and limiting deductions. Then there's the provision to raise gasoline taxes gradually by 15 cents per gallon between 2013 and 2015 -- an idea worth exploring. It's a tax increase that would achieve some of the energy efficiencies that Democrats have tried to force through regulation. It's a consumption tax that everyone would pay, including the 36 percent of income-tax filers who, according to the Tax Foundation, paid no income tax in 2008.
I know that I'll hear from Republicans and Democrats who will complain: Just because politicians failed to control spending, that doesn't mean they should be subjected to higher taxes. They place all of the blame on Washington, yet none of the responsibility on voters.
That's how America piled up all this debt.
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See Other Commentary by Debra J. Saunders.
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