If not 'sequester,' then what? Five ideas from left and right.

Few in Washington believe that "the sequester,” $85 billion in automatic spending cuts set to hit the federal budget as of March 1, is a good idea. But what's the alternative? Here are five proposals, from the right, the center, and the left, to replace the sequester. Which do you like?

4. Simpson-Bowles: ‘Think bigger’

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
Erskine Bowles, chairwoman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, speaks during a news conference for the Campaign to Fix the Debt at the Nasdaq Market site in New York earlier this year.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid” is how Democrat Erskine Bowles, White House chief of staff under President Clinton, described the sequester in late February. Congress needs to aspire to more – to a broader plan that will put the United States on a more secure fiscal path for decades to come, say Mr. Bowles and former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson, cochairs of Mr. Obama’s commission on reducing US debt and deficits.

Here’s what the daring duo of all things fiscally responsible now say needs to happen.

The sequester would reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade, but Congress ought to double that, Mr. Simpson and Mr. Bowles say. To attain that goal, Congress will need to bring in more revenue through tax reform ($600 billion), cut future outlays for Medicare and other health-related programs (another $600 billion), and make deeper spending cuts, they say.

The Simpson-Bowles proposed savings on government health programs are double what Obama endorsed during his State of the Union message on Feb. 12. That’s because their plan is broader, encompassing reform of tort laws, reduced federal payments to health-care providers, and a requirement that wealthier seniors pay more for federal health programs.

The duo does not stop there. They’d cut the deficit another $1.2 trillion by changing the federal inflation measure to a slower-growing formula for indexing government spending and tax brackets (known as chained CPI), which would garner some $300 billion in savings over the next decade. More than $300 billion in savings would come from lower interest payments on the national debt. Further discretionary spending cuts would also be needed, as well as changes to mandatory payments including farm subsidies and federal retirement benefits.

Bowles and Simpson want a plan that is bigger than the sequester and that folds in changes to entitlement programs, for two reasons. First, they believe that cutting the deficit by $2.4 trillion over 10 years would stabilize the debt where it is now – and put it on a downward trajectory in the future. Second, changes to Medicare would ensure that the national debt would continue to shrink beyond 2023 by aligning federal spending obligations with the demographic challenge of an aging population.

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