Q&A with fiscal commissioners Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles

At a Nov. 19 Monitor breakfast, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles discussed their plan to lower the US budget deficit, arguing that if reform doesn't happen, 'the choices will be made for us.'

ZUMA Press/Newscom
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (center) introduces former Sen. Alan Simpson (l.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, on May 26 in Washington.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) are the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They talked about their recent draft proposals to reduce the US deficit at a Nov. 19 breakfast in Washington, D.C. (Watch video excerpt here.)

The difficulties of getting the American public to accept the painful steps necessary to get US finances in order:

Mr. Bowles: "The specifics make it tough. My mama, who is 92, said, 'Hey, Erskine, I'm really glad you're doing this.' Then she said in the same breath, 'Don't mess with my Medicare.' That's like everybody is – don't mess with my stuff.... For years and years, politicians have been afraid they'd be punished if they took tough decisions. I think the world is changed. They're going to be heavily penalized if they don't make these tough choices."

Attempts to place their deficit-cutting suggestions on the political spectrum of left to right:

Mr. Simpson: "I'd just describe it as an honest plan. You can't win that game of categorization, right or left.... I've been called a Republican toady covering Obama's fanny; Erskine over there has been called evil by [Democrats]. We have irritated hopefully everyone in the United States and especially every group. The interest groups will come at us like harpies off the cliffs with their talons out."

The US political structure having to address the problem of red ink:

Bowles: "The only incentive for elected people to do this is it has to be done.... If we stay on automatic pilot, the choices will be made for us. The markets will [punish US bonds]: They will be swift, they will be severe. This country will never be the same.... It won't be the old slippery-slope stuff we read about: It will be very swift and dramatic like in Greece or Ireland or Portugal or Spain."

How freshman lawmakers elected with tea party support handle this issue in Congress:

Simpson: "The [vote on raising the] debt limit when it comes will prove who's a hero and who's a joke and who's a faker. It will prove these new guys.... I had a conversation with one guy who said, 'I'm here to compromise on issues without compromising myself.' I said, 'Good, compromise is not a dirty word.'... He said, 'I will not vote for the debt extension [until you reduce government spending].'... I can't wait. It'll be something. I'll be watching from my place in our witness protection program."

The idea that debt markets have yet to punish the nation because the US remains a haven in uncertain economic times:

Bowles: "We're the best-looking horse in the glue factory."

A tribute to the founder of the Monitor breakfasts, Godfrey Sperling:

Simpson: "He was a genial giant and one of the finest journalists I ever met."

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