We can still Fix the Debt
The Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform failed to achieve the supermajority needed to force Congress to vote on its recommendations. Its debt solution even failed to get the backing of the president who created it. But despite those setbacks, the now-defunct commission raised public awareness of our national government’s growing debt mess.
And the bipartisan panel’s co-chairs — former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles of North Carolina — are still advancing that vital cause. They have launched a new group called “Fix the Debt.”
The coalition — again bipartisan — of business leaders, former elected officials and fiscal experts are sounding the warning anew that unless Washington gets its budgetary act together, the United States will keep accelerating toward a date with fiscal oblivion.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reprised the same alarm Tuesday and Wednesday during testimony before Congress.
Yet Fix the Debt, which made its public debut Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, just might have a better chance at getting through to those red-ink-gushing lawmakers. Co-chaired by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (a Democrat) and former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg (a Republican), Fix the Debt aims to collect 10 million online signatures calling for Congress to pass an effective debt-reduction plan by July 4, 2013.
That will require hard political choices by members of both parties — and ultimately, by the American people.
The Simpson-Bowles commission advocated tax-code simplification that included removing some popular loopholes, making deep spending cuts and thoroughly overhauling entitlement programs by imposing higher eligibility ages and lower benefits. Fix the Debt is pushing for similar deficit-trimming moves.
President Obama refused to support the recommendations of his own Simpson-Bowles Commission in large part because of those entitlement cuts.
But if every proposal for such comprehensive — and long-overdue — reform is shot down by Democrats’ familiar alarm that the changes would “end Medicare (or Social Security) as we know it,” the status quo will doom them both.
And don’t look now, but Medicare and Social Security “as we know it” are indisputably unsustainable.
As for Republicans, their reflexive indifference to virtually any tax-revenue enhancement that doesn’t stem directly from economic growth undermines the credibility of their claim to being the party of fiscal responsibility.
No, we can’t simply tax our way to economic prosperity and balance-sheet stability. But we can’t simply tax-cut our way to those goals, either.
The national debt is climbing toward $16 trillion. We are in our fourth straight year of at least a $1.2 trillion deficit. Clearly, we will never right our foundering financial ship without both serious reductions in spending and increases in revenue.
Honeywell CEO David M. Cote, who served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission, now is on Fix the Debt’s Business Leaders Council, which includes the chief executives of 100 companies from the Fortune 500.
Citing the recurring approach of a “fiscal cliff” as another politically volatile debt-ceiling debate looms, Mr. Cote said: “What we’re trying to do is get all politicians on all sides mobilized to say, ‘Yes, there’s a solution here.’ The math on this is simple. It’s the political will that’s been lacking.”
Fix the Debt offers another chance to generate that political will — before it’s too late.