Alan Simpson Strikes Back
The fiscal commission’s co-chair responds to his critics.


Andrew Stiles

Former senator and fiscal-commission co-chair Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.) often speaks as if he’d been plucked from the stage of one of Harry Reid’s beloved cowboy-poetry festivals. And he certainly has some choice words for those he thinks are impeding the prospects for a deal on deficit reduction.

He calls Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, “off his rocker.” He describes the AARP as a brick wall standing in the way of desperately needed entitlement reform, and blasts its leaders as a bunch of wealthy, self-aggrandizing lobbyists who pretend to speak for average Americans. “We’re not talking about some wandering sisters of mercy here,” he tells National Review Online.

However, Simpson remains cautiously optimistic that the United States may yet avoid a debt crisis. He applauds Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), a member of the fiscal commission, for his “principled stand” against Norquist’s rigid interpretation of the ATR “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” The two have been at odds since Coburn voted to support the commission’s final plan, which Norquist describes as a “massive tax hike.” Their feud came to another head last week, when 34 Republicans including Coburn voted to eliminate the much-maligned ethanol tax credit. Because the measure did not include any offsetting tax cuts, Norquist denounced it as a tax increase according to the Pledge.

There are roughly $1.1 trillion worth of “tax expenditures” in the current tax code, Simpson points out, most of which are enjoyed exclusively by high-income earners. He questions the sanity of those who defend these special tax credits. “If you’re joining together to get rid of tax expenditures, you’re doing the right thing for the country,” he says.

Simpson recalls a conversation he once had with Norquist in which the ATR president named Ronald Reagan as his personal hero. “I told him, ‘Grover, Reagan raised taxes eleven times. That was your hero?’” Simpson says. “He must have been very disappointed.”

In fact, the former senator questions the basic concept of the ATR Pledge, which lawmakers are encouraged to sign before they take office. It amounts to “bondage of the mind,” he says. “Who would sign anything before coming to office before reviewing the facts, conditions, and situation?” asks Simpson. “Why would anyone — on any hot issue you can imagine — lock themselves into a position?”

Then there is the AARP, an organization Simpson slams for rigidly opposing necessary changes to entitlements. “All they do is slap us around with a stick in their magazine,” he says. “If you can’t raise the retirement age to 68 by 2050 — for crying out loud — who are you? You must be a boob if you can’t figure out that life expectancy is 78.”

It is precisely this mentality that was responsible for the way House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) was “savaged” for his effort to substantially reform (and thereby save) Medicare, on which “everything depends” when it comes to the country’s long-term debt problem. In doing so, Simpson argues, Ryan set himself apart as a man among children on the field of fiscal seriousness. “If you’re going to attack the mastodon in the kitchen, that’s Medicare,” he says. “That’s exactly what he did, and they served him a rich ration of hell. In the years that go by, we’ll look back and see the only guy who had the guts to nail the mastodon was Paul Ryan.”

Certainly not President Obama, who decided to “nail Ryan to the post” in an April 13 speech at George Washington University to outline his own “framework” to address the deficit. “I don’t think that’s going to sell,” he says. “You don’t praise and talk about bipartisanship and then just hammer Republicans flat.”

In particular, Simpson did not care for the president’s sermonizing about the need to protect the “poor and vulnerable” members of society. “That made me blow my cork,” he says. “What do you think our plan did?” Indeed, Obama hasn’t exactly embraced the final plan put forward by his own bipartisan fiscal commission, beyond acknowledging that it is “on the table.”

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have gone nearly 800 days without passing a budget. Simpson understands their reluctance to release a plan of their own. “Everybody’s under the cannon,” he says. “Why the hell would you throw something out there to get torn to bits?” He predicts that Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) will unveil a “hell of a good plan” when the time comes. “He’s got a lot of courage,” he says of Conrad.