When the Simpson-Bowles debt and deficit commission issued its recommendations in December 2010, President Obama – who had established the commission – thanked the members and then, essentially, put their report on the shelf. Their plan would cut $3 in spending for every $1 of new revenue, and was backed by 11 of 18 members, including all three Republican senators.
At the time, Mr. Obama and the Democrats had just suffered a “shellacking” in the midterms, losing control of the House and barely keeping their majority in the Senate. Still, many observers believe the Simpson-Bowles plan was Obama’s opportunity to show leadership and push hard for reforms that would set the nation on a path to fiscal sustainability. On one aspect in particular, entitlements, Obama has yet to propose any big reforms. Instead, Republicans such as House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan have gone first with proposals, allowing Democrats – including Obama – to attack.
But if Obama wants to show that he’s willing to stick his neck out, in the face of escalating federal debt, he could embrace Simpson-Bowles, or at least use it as a launch point for discussion. Already, there are rumblings that the plan could take center stage after the November election, when Washington could see the mother of all lame-duck sessions of Congress. Looming are the year-end expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, deep automatic cuts in defense and other discretionary spending, and the prospect of another battle to raise the debt ceiling.
No one expects any serious negotiation before the November election, but Obama could seize the rhetorical moment and get behind the report he commissioned. The group was named for its co-chairs, Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.