As a former senator who served under four different presidents, Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.) is perplexed at the way the current one has “led” since taking office in 2009. “One thing that’s puzzled me from the beginning of this administration is that, on every major piece of legislation, he’s said, ‘Let Congress decide,’” Simpson tells National Review Online. “With every other administration in the past, whether it was Carter, Reagan, Bush, or Clinton, whenever they wanted to do something big, those of us in Congress would always say, ‘Okay, where’s the White House bill?’ They always had a plan to show us.”
Unfortunately, Simpson argues, President Obama has failed to adopt this approach, opting to let Congress take the lead on legislative matters, even those of paramount importance, such as health care, the federal budget, and — most recently — the debt ceiling. “I’ve never seen that done before,” he says. “Congress is never going to hammer out a sensible bill if they don’t know what the White House is going to do with it.”
Only House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), he points out, has had the gumption to step forward with a plan to “slay the biggest mastodon in the kitchen” by tackling the biggest driver of the national debt — entitlement spending — and face the inevitable “howling, shrieking, moaning” of the political class. “The president will say that he has a plan,” Simpson says. “He gave a speech and said he wanted to cut $4 trillion, which is a minimal number, but then he’s not going to touch Social Security and Medicare, for crying out loud.” That just won’t cut it.
We may, however, soon see an “Obama plan” (in concrete form) after all. “I intend to present my own recommendations over the coming weeks on how we should proceed,” the president said on Monday. Better late than never, Simpson says. “But it won’t be any good unless it’s specific. No more chicken dance.” That goes for Congress as well.
Simpson, who served as co-chair on President Obama’s deficit commission, laments that the recent debt-ceiling agreement “didn’t do enough,” and, typically, avoids the really difficult choices that will have to be made eventually. “They’re not just kicking the can down the road, they’re kicking a 55-gallon drum down the road,” he says. “This thing has to be resolved on a long-term basis.” Which is why Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade the United States’ credit rating should come as no surprise. “You can’t add $2.3 trillion to a debt of $14.3 without a long-range plan to repay it,” he says. “The reason why ratings agencies don’t downgrade our friends in Great Britain and Germany is because they have an actual plan.”
As for the “supercommittee” that will be tasked over the next few months with finding at least $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction, Simpson says lawmakers would do well to consult with the Gang of Six — comprising Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), Mark Warner (D., Va.), Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), and Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) — in order to produce the largest possible package. But he knows all too well the challenges that lie ahead. “They’re going to get hammered from all sides, because they’re going to have to get specific,” he says. “They always say, ‘I’m ready to do something if everybody else will,’ but they know that everybody else won’t.”
That is why he suggests that Senate leaders appoint members of the Gang of Six to the committee — they’ve already taken plenty of heat for their own proposal, which is largely based on the work of the deficit commission. “If the [new committee] does not have at least one, two, three members of the Gang of Six, I don’t think they’re going to get anywhere,” he says. “Why not pick the guys who have already been picking through the wreckage?”
He couldn’t have been pleased when, just moments after we concluded our interview on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) announced his picks for the committee: Sens. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), Max Baucus (D., Mont.), and John Kerry (D., Mass.) — none of them members of the Gang. And on Wednesday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) announced the appointment of three non–Gang members as well: Sens. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz), Rob Portman (R., Ohio), and Pat Toomey (R., Pa.). Additionally, the House Republican appointees included two members who served on the deficit commission — Reps. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas) and Dave Camp (R., Mich.) — but who voted against the panel’s final recommendations.
As always, Simpson has some choice words for what he views to be the two primary obstacles to a grand bipartisan deal — Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and the AARP. He signals hope, however, that Norquist’s influence among Republican lawmakers is beginning to wane. “He will be irrelevant in two years,” Simpson predicts. “I always ask [Republican members of Congress] — what can Grover do to you? He won’t murder you. He won’t burn your house down. The only thing Grover can do to you is beat you in an election. And if that’s the only thing he can do and you’re still afraid, then you don’t deserve to be here to begin with.”
The same goes for the AARP and others who refuse to acknowledge the need for meaningful entitlement reform. “If you can’t figure out where these programs are going, you’re off your rocker,” he says. And contrary to what most Democrats like to argue, the new health-care law did nothing to improve their long-term outlook. “You can call it Obamacare, or Elvis Presley care, or whatever you want to call it, it can’t work. It can’t sustain itself.”
Simpson says the Tea Party has been “a force” in the deficit debate, but suggests their role is being over-hyped by the media. “There are some very good people in the Tea Party, and there are just as many screwballs, lightweights, and boobs as there are in the Democratic and Republican parties,” he says. “They get all the play because the media is only interested in conflict, confusion, and so on.”
Simpson continues to work with fellow deficit commission co-chair Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Clinton, touting the commission’s work and speaking frankly about the “fiscal nightmare” facing the country. “We go around the country and we tell people we are not here to do bullsh** and we don’t do mush, and we get standing ovations,” Simpson says of their straight-talking style. He just hopes the American people send that message to Congress before it’s too late. “If [Congress] is going to play that game, if the American people want to watch that mush, they’re going to pay the price.”
And when it comes to members of Congress, he says, most are desperate for a way out of the “mush.” “A lot of them come up and tell us ‘save us from ourselves,’” he says. “They’re trapped. They’re trapped in a web of reelection.”
It’s a trap they’ll have to find their way out of, and soon, if future generations are to have any hope of inhabiting a country that resembles the one we know today. “If every day you borrow $4.6 billion, you’ve got to be a little goofy. As they say, if your horse drops dead, you should probably get off,” he says.
— Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin Fellow.