Congressional senior moment? Flip-flopping on Bowles-Simpson

Suddenly, the tough budget reform proposed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles is getting a second look. Oh, politicians don’t love the real plan, but they are positively enamored of their own self-edited, stripped-down versions.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, testify before the US Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in this November 2011 file photo. Their plan couldn't buy a vote when it was announced, but politicians have recently started trotting out their own, drastically edited versions of the proposal.

Have you noticed that as the details of the tough budget reform proposed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles fade into memory, more politicians are embracing the plan developed by the chairs of the 2010 White House fiscal commission?

Oh, they don’t love the real plan—barely any elected official had a kind word to say about it when it was first proposed. But they are positively enamored of their own self-edited versions—usually with all the tough stuff conveniently deleted.  

Psychologists sometimes talk about “ecstatic memory”—an idealized recollection of some past event. Imagine, for example, guys at their college reunion gleefully reminiscing about that bender they went on senior year. In reality, they awoke with blinding hangovers in some cheap motel room. But in their memory, it was an evening filled with great music, beautiful women, and an all-around good time.

That’s a bit like what’s going on with Bowles-Simpson.  

No more than a handful of politicians have ever been willing to publicly support the actual plan, with all its gory details. The proposal would have reduced the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years, including $2.2 trillion in unpopular spending reductions, $1 trillion in unpopular tax hikes and the rest in interest savings.  

You’ll recall President Obama said approximately nothing when the chairs of his own fiscal commission made their recommendations. Key congressional GOP leaders who served on the commission—including House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI)–voted against the report.   

As recently as last March, the full House had a chance to vote on the plan. It got 38 votes—16 Republicans and 22 Democrats.

But now, it seems the plan has all sorts of new friends. Just a couple of weeks ago, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told the Council of Foreign Relations that the path to fiscal sustainability “began” with Bowles-Simpson. Remarkably, he added that President Obama’s own budget “although it differs in slight — in small respects from that basic framework, is very close to that basic design.”   

Sure it is, except for the tax and spending parts.

Mitt Romney is another fan—absent the details. For instance, he embraces the bit of the plan that would cut individual tax rates to 28 percent. But he conveniently forgets that overall Bowles Simpson would have raised taxes by nearly $1 trillion over the next decade, increased rates on capital gains, and scaled back tax subsidies for home mortgages, charitable gifts, and employer-sponsored health insurance while wiping out tax preferences for nearly everything else.

Romney says he’ll slash tax breaks to pay for those low rates too. But unlike Bowles-Simpson, he won’t say how. Maybe he shares their plan for cutting preferences. Only he isn’t telling.

And that’s the real problem. Bowles and Simpson told people just what they’d do. And that’s exactly what politicians avoid at all costs. Instead, like those drunken college boys, they prefer to reminisce about the old days that never were. Or in the case of Bowles-Simpson, a budget plan that never was.

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