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The Monitor's View

The debt commission: Bowles and Simpson point to the political solution

At a Monitor breakfast with reporters, the chairmen of the presidential debt commission say that lawmakers will finally cut the deficit either because of a crisis or because they're listening to one another. Let's hope it is the latter.

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The two chairmen – Democrat Bowles, former chief of staff to President Clinton; Mr. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming – said that the political will to tackle the deficit and debt could be prompted by a crisis, or by lawmakers listening to one another.

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Simpson pointed to this spring, when Congress will face a vote on raising the national debt ceiling in order to keep funding the government. Conservatives will refuse to raise the limit, and demand cuts. Other lawmakers will refuse. The government might shut down.

“They’re gonna sweat bullets,” said Simpson. That’s good because then they might reach for the commission’s ideas.

Beyond that, lies the unknown day of crisis when the global financial markets decide the US can no longer afford to pay its debt – just like markets pulled the plug on Greece last spring, and with Ireland now.

The crisis would develop swiftly, and so would the damage. The cost of borrowing would skyrocket, businesses would not be able to function, roads would not get built, entitlement benefits would not get paid.

That can be avoided, insisted Bowles, if lawmakers start to listen to one another and build trust. He’s seen that happen among the 18 members of the commission, 12 of whom are members of Congress. “We spent eight months building trust,” said Bowles. “There is common ground there.” If Washington decides it wants to come together over this problem, “it’s doable.” Still, as of now, sharp differences divide the commission, although they have until Dec. 1 to vote on the report.

Listening and compromise is the preferred way to solve the nation’s debt woes. And the lawmakers who are on the commission can start by sharing in Congress what they’ve learned. They can spread trust. Indeed, three of the Republican commission members will soon head important committees in the House, where spending bills originate.

As Simpson said, whether lawmakers on the commission agree now or not, “they know the figures.... Instead of appetite and ambition, you will have sown the seeds of wisdom and knowledge.”

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