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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Wise Guys

Debt and Taxes, Cuts and Clowns

Al Simpson, the former Republican Senator from Cody, Wyoming, is one of an increasingly rare breed in American public life. He actually thinks that once in a while our political system must try and mobilize in order to address a real problem; a real problem like the out of control deficit.

Talk to almost any thinking person in Washington, Republican or Democrat, and they will privately say what most folks in the country instinctively know. We’re broke. The deficit is a huge and growing danger. The Chinese hold our debt. Spending, particularly on entitlements, is out of control. In Al Simpson speak, the country is “going to the bow-wows.”

There are only two options and they must work together. Spending must be cut and taxes must be raised. Yet for the political right raising taxes is the third rail of American politics; a touch brings certain political death. Resisting spending cuts is every bit as much liberal orthodoxy. Still, every serious person in politics, business and the media knows both ends need to come to the middle, yet the political gridlock of Washington allows no one to move and few have the courage to talk seriously about the problems.

The old line about what constitutes a political gaffe comes to mind: in Washington, a gaffe occurs when a politician speaks the truth.

Enter Al Simpson. The tall, bald guy has a grand sense of humor. He speaks his mind. He cracks wise. He pokes big egos. He’s not afraid to commit a gaffe. The hard right hates him.

“He’s old and grumpy, and he doesn’t like the Reagan Republican Party,” according to Grover Norquist one of the influential leaders of the no taxes, never, no how crowd.

[Norquist, by the way, has a selective memory about the Reagan record. Reagan both cut and raised taxes during his two terms. Al Simpson would remember that bit of trivia, but clearly that story line doesn’t fit with the conventional wisdom of the right or left and that is part of the problem.]

Simpson was profiled in the New York Times last week because – what was he thinking – he agreed to co-chair the bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama to recommend actions to reduce the federal deficit. Simpson is already sharpening up his tongue, saying he knows he’ll catch hell from “Rush babe” and others who “babble into the vapors” while whistling past the deficit grave yard.

The political left won’t get serious either, vowing to defend to the death sacred cow spending programs. If you need any more proof of the dysfunction in Washington, I would note that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even agree on forming the deficit commission. Obama launched it with an executive order after Senate Republicans balked. At the same time, so called “progressives,” including people who ought to know better, initially refused to sign up. Some, meanwhile, have come around.

The Concord Coalition is a sober and respected advocate for doing what needs to be done to get the deficit under control. As the Coalition, chaired by former Senators Warren Rudman and Bob Kerrey, a Republican and a Democrat, points out, both parties have made this mess.

“Consider what has happened over the last decade,” the Coalition says on its website. “In January 2001, Congress had a very nice ‘problem’ on its hands: what to do with a projected 10-year budget surplus of $5.6 trillion. At that time, the projected surplus for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009 was a mind-boggling $710 billion.”

What really happened in the last decade, of course, created the mess: big tax cuts, big spending increases, two wars fought on credit, a great recession and bam – fiscal chaos.

Again, the Concord Coalition: “In 2009, for example, Congress spent $826 billion more on programs than had been projected in 2001. Taxes were cut by $363 billion. Additional debt service stemming from these legislated changes cost $225 billion. That comes to a negative impact of $1.4 trillion. In other words, the $1.4 trillion deficit in 2009 can be entirely attributed to the $1.4 trillion of legislation enacted by Congress since January 2001.”

Republicans controlled the Congress for part of that time, Democrats part of the time. A Republican was in the White House, a Democrat is there now. Everybody is responsible, but will anyone do anything?

The witty and wise Christopher Buckley doesn’t think so. He notes that the recommendations of Blue Ribbon Commissions collect dust on shelves all over Washington. The last big commission – The Iraq Study Group – recommended an exit from Iraq and, as Buckley says, “What happened? The surge.”

That said, I’m pulling for Simpson and his Democratic co-chair, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. For certain, Simpson will need his sense of humor to sustain him as he picks his way through this thankless thicket. Al once said, “In your country club, your church and business, about 15 percent of the people are screwballs, light weights and boobs and you would not want those people unrepresented in Congress.”

If Simpson’s percentage figure is right, here’s hoping he can appeal to enough of the remaining 85 percent to get serious about this huge national crisis. If not, bring on the bow-wows.

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