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.
While some have criticized the private, closed-doors nature of the ongoing debt negotiations and argued that lawmakers should follow a traditional process that is open to the public eye, Simpson firmly disagrees. “Everyone ought to be thankful for that, because it means they might be getting something done,” he says. “Even the Founding Fathers met in private — not secret — and if our commission hadn’t done that, we never would have had a deal.”
He sees the fact that negotiators are refusing to speak to the press in significant detail as a sign that progress is being made, which in turn fuels his optimism that a solution is in reach. “I know we’re going to have a deal,” he says. “Something good or better than where we are will happen.”
At this point, almost any long-term proposal would be an improvement on the status quo. “If we can just have a plan,” he says. “We don’t even have to put pieces in it yet. The reason that countries like Germany and Great Britain and France aren’t being told by rating agencies that they’re going to have to be downgraded is because they all have a plan.”
Whatever the final package looks like, it will be difficult for large majorities in both parties to accept — but they will have to do so. The eleven members of the deficit commission who supported its plan, for example, “almost barfed” before casting their votes, he says.
Either way, Simpson has considerably less at stake personally than most Americans. “I’ll be 80 in the fall, and it’s your generation and your children and grandchildren who are on the hook, who’ll be picking grit with the chickens,” says Simpson. “If Joe Biden [who is negotiating with congressional leaders on a budget deal] can’t get it done, it won’t get done. If not, hang on for a chaotic time.”
“This not about ping-pong or secret meetings and all that crap. This is dead serious. I really mean it when I say pray for Joe Biden.”
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin fellow.