Debt commission co-chair says upcoming debt limit ‘bloodbath’ will force action on recommendations

Jon Ward Contributor
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A co-chairman of President Obama’s debt commission said Friday that a fast-approaching congressional vote on whether to raise the government’s debt limit will cause a political “bloodbath” that will force lawmakers to take their recommendations seriously, regardless of whether their panel produces a consensus product.

“It won’t matter whether two of us have signed this or 14 or 18. When debt limit time comes they are going to look around and say, ‘What in the hell do we do now?” said Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming.

“We’ve got guys who will not approve the debt limit extension unless we give them a piece of meat, real meat, off this package. And boy, the bloodbath will be extraordinary. They’ll say, ‘Well how the hell do you get meat off this package?’ And they’ll say, ‘A couple of jerks did something for eight months and it’s laying out there. Go look at it. It’s written in English. No wizardry in it,” Simpson said, speaking with reporters at a breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

“This is going to be beautiful politics: the brutal kind. I love those. The debt limit, when it comes, in April or May, will prove who’s a hero and who’s a jerk and who’s a charlatan,” said Simpson, who has always been known for his colorful commentary. “Oh, I can’t wait. It’ll be something. I’ll be watching … from our witness protection program.”

The federal debt is currently at $13.7 trillion, and the debt limit is $14.3 trillion.* Congress raised the limit to the current level from $12.4 trillion in February of this year, and they will have to confront the issue soon after the new year, possibly as early as February.

Lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, have told TheDC that they do not think the debt limit necessarily needs to be increased. Coburn said he wants to see he $350 billion in spending be cut instead.

Simpson and fellow co-chair Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, last week released a preliminary draft of their proposals for reducing the debt and making Social Security solvent for 75 years.

The unexpected release of their draft set off a firestorm of criticism, as well as counter proposals from a liberal member of the commission and a more conservative proposal from another panel member. The loudest critics of the Bowles/Simpson plan have been on the left, while most on the right were quiet. The White House, also, was noncommittal in its response.

Simpson was dismissive of the complaints.

“I say to people who bitch and snort and pinpoint … Just go read the damn thing. Read it all. Read the whole damn thing, and then call us,” he said.

To those who downplay debt and deficit concerns, Simpson said: “It’s an indigestible lump … you cannot avoid it.”

Bowles responded more substantively to liberal groups and labor unions who have criticized their plans to fix Social Security.

On the retirement age, which is currently 66, Bowles said their plan moves it from 67 – which it is already scheduled to go up to in 2027 – to 68 in 2050 and 69 in 2075. They also proposed a “hardship provision” to allow those who cannot work beyond 62 to enter Social Security early.

And they increased payments for the “truly disadvantaged” to more than they get today, Bowles said. He acknowledged that the benefits are less in the future than they are currently scheduled to be, but said that what is scheduled to be paid out in future years is “a joke.”

“We can’t meet the schedule,” he said.

Both Simpson and Bowles also admitted that their proposals are unpopular, because it spreads sacrifice to all incomes and all interest groups in American politics. But they also argued that the American people are ready to accept some sacrifices and will reward politicians who make hard choices.

“They finally figured out at home that they had to cut their own credit cards, that they went broke and they had to lower their lifestyle, and they’re looking at the one agency of the world that has not done that, which is the federal government. So they’re sending these anti-tax people,” Simpson said.

Bowles added: “For years and years politicians have been afraid they’d be punished if they made tough decisions.”

“The world’s changed. They’re going to be heavily penalized if they don’t make these tough choices.”

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*This article originally stated that the debt limit was $14.2 trillion.