Bipartisan powers, activate! Can Congress's debt avengers be superheroes?

Once again, Washington's bipartisan, blue-ribbon, out-of-power elite gathers to urge Congress to break the gridlock and do the right thing on the nation's looming financial Armageddon.

By , Staff writer

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    Former White House budget director Alice Rivlin (r), former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming (c), and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff in the Clinton White House, testify before a Senate hearing on fiscal responsibility on Nov. 1, 2011. Today, they announced a 'Fix the Debt Campaign' to, again, try to help resolve the nation's fiscal crisis.
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A bipartisan group calling itself the “Fix the Debt Campaign” kicked off its work Tuesday, and when these clear-eyed, pragmatic, bipartisan powers combine, they just might be the granddaddy of all Washington’s seemingly never-ending stream of commissions, working groups, and “gangs” of all membership levels aimed at correcting the nation’s treacherous financial trajectory.

But that name just doesn’t have the right swing – how about The Debt Avengers? The (Fiscal) Justice League? Or, if it wasn’t already sullied by congressional impotence, The Supercommittee?

Fix the Debt has arguably accumulated everybody who is anybody in Washington’s wonky, “let’s get real” set about federal debt and deficits. The effort is led by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming and Democrat Erskine Bowles. Yes, the Simpson and Bowles of the Simpson-Bowles plan to reduce the nation’s debt by $4 trillion over 10 years, which nearly every elected official in Washington says (when trying to sound reasonable and bipartisan) that they love in theory but won’t touch otherwise. A vote for a plan along the lines of Simpson-Bowles in the House earlier this year turned up less than three dozen votes.

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And that’s the group’s main question: What’s going to make it different from all the other herdings of well-meaning, rational, patriotic Americans who have beat their heads against the walls of Congress and the White House to no avail? Simpson-Bowles, after all, was the product of President Obama’s own debt commission – a fact easily forgotten considering the president left the plan largely for dead upon its publication, only to broadly endorse it later on.

But Messrs. Simpson and Bowles have backup. They are joined by Alice Rivlin, the first-ever director of the Congressional Budget Office who, by her own admission, “may have served on more debt commissions than anybody in Washington,” and is half of a duo (the other is former Sen. Pete Dominici (R) of New Mexico) that published a second bipartisan debt reduction plan.

Lawmakers looking for guidance from Wall Street types can look to famed investment banker Peter Peterson on the right or Steven Rattner, Mr. Obama’s auto czar, on the left. Those who want private-sector bona fides can find them in Honeywell chairman and CEO Dave Cote and World Fuel Services chairman and CEO Paul Stebbins. And for that down-the-middle, think tank-y wonkishness, there’s former World Bank chief Robert Zoellick and the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Maya McGuineas.

How could they succeed? It won’t be as exciting as beating back an alien invasion, but could prove as difficult in today’s gridlocked Washington: First, they’ll become a clearinghouse for bipartisan pathways to solving the nation’s debt and deficit problems once the November elections are resolved.

“What we want is once this election cycle is over, we want to be available as a resource to whoever the next president is to be able to govern well and the next Congress to govern well,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, one of the campaign’s co-chairmen. “We’re going to give them a lot of good ideas so they can accomplish that.”

Second, they’ll work outside Washington by building relationships with corporate leaders and running a “National Debt Tour” roadshow, among other measures, to build pressure for a comprehensive solution from beyond the Potomac. If the American people start pushing their representatives for a debt deal, they reason, its chances will improve dramatically.

“It’s necessary for us to create an environment where it becomes not only good policy to vote 'yes' for a debt-reduction plan but good politics as well,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell (D) of Pennsylvania, the campaign’s other co-chairman.

Yes, they say, a deal by July 4, 2013, is conceivable, but that would require Congress to delay some $600 billion in spending cuts and higher taxes from Dec. 31 through the middle of next year.

The group, however, is in the same bind that all organizations of former lawmakers and experts are in: They want action but are in no way able to make that happen.

They can chide the political parties, as Honeywell’s Mr. Cote did: “We can’t have people continue to revel in discordant pluralism or just indulging in simultaneous asphyxiation when we have a problem of this magnitude to address.”

They can urge the parties to act, as Mr. Bowles did: “We’ve got enough really good ideas out there, what we need now is to act. We need real action.... We do face a fiscal cliff. If we do nothing and we barrel through this fiscal cliff at the end of the year, we’re going to have about $7 trillion hit this country right in the gut.”

But what would they tell Congress to do? How are they going to help grease the levers of power in Washington to head off what they see as an imminent financial Armageddon?

“We don’t think it’s our job to tell Congress" how to deal with the fiscal cliff or with the lame duck session, said Mr. Gregg. “We’re just going to be here as a resource.”

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