With the White House and congressional leaders hanging back from some of the most politically explosive budget issues, ad hoc groups of lawmakers and experts are pressing for action on the long-term deficit. So far they have little to show for it.
In two appearances on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, the co-chairmen of President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission, launched “The Moment of Truth” campaign to drum up support for their panel’s politically-unpalatable recommendations, while the “Gang of Six” senators continued to try to hammer out a legislative proposal drawn from the commission’s approach.
But amid the flurry of activity and media attention, a key underlying question remains: Does President Obama and lawmakers who talk with growing alarm about the nation’s deteriorating fiscal condition, have the will to take the politically perilous steps to do something about the $1.5 trillion to $1.6 trillion annual deficit and the staggering long term debt? The jury is out.
“To bring this through an election cycle with a third of our members up and in the House where everyone is up for election makes it a very daunting task,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, the Democratic whip and a member of the bipartisan Gang of Six, said in an interview.
The Illinois lawmaker was quick to note that he backs the report of the commission he served on, although he disagrees with some of its prescriptions that called for a mix of steep spending cuts, entitlement reform and overhauling the tax code to achieve nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction through 2020.
Durbin is not about to oversell the prospects for its enactment into law. “I am trying to be realistic about this and there is this notion that somehow if we can agree on the deficit commission, this should be easy. It is not,” he said. “We have gone beyond the theoretical. We are now dealing with the reality of real live politicians with their offices on the line. And, equally, if not more important, their values on the line. That’s not easy.”
Still, Bowles, the former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, and Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, are determined to keep the heat on. Yesterday, before the Senate Budget Committee, Bowles said: “This debt and these deficits that we are incurring on an annual basis are like a cancer, and they are truly going to destroy this country from within unless we have the common sense to do something about it.”
The ever-colorful Simpson said of folks at their kitchen tables around the country: “They know that if you spend more than you earn, you lose your butt. And they know that if you spend a buck and borrow 40 cents of it, you must be stupid. And they've got it figured out that this government is stupid to borrow 40 cents for every buck you spend.”
Those sobering messages were reiterated later in the day before a packed Senate hearing room when Bowles and Simpson launched the “Moment of Truth Project,” an initiative that aims to keep up the pressure for action on the fiscal commission’s proposals on a bipartisan basis. Five of the six members of the Gang of Six spoke, including Senators Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Mark Warner, D-Va., and Durbin. They uniformly praised the commission’s work and stressed the urgent need for action. (The sixth member is Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.)
Warner and Chambliss trekked to Richmond on Monday to begin a series of events to try to begin to win over the public on the need for tough medicine.
Poll numbers show voters are not embracing changes in programs that benefit them—such as raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits—and the senators recognize they must reverse such sentiments and persuade citizens to lobby their lawmakers to act. It’s a tall order.