Congress must craft deal on debt

  • Article by: ERSKINE BOWLES , Special to The Washington Post.
  • Updated: November 8, 2012 - 2:02 PM

Important decisions need to be made in the next two months to address the "fiscal cliff."

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Erskine Bowles, left, accompanied by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's bipartisan deficit commission, gestures while speaking on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010.

Photo: Alex Brandon, Associated Press

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The American people spoke on Tuesday, and they voted for a continuation of divided government. With President Barack Obama at the helm for four more years and a strengthened Democratic majority in the Senate, and with the Republicans decidedly in control of the House of Representatives, both sides may now feel emboldened to pursue their party's preferences. Rarely has it ever been this clear, however, that elected leaders from across the political spectrum need to come together to address our nation's rising federal debt.

Unlike previous times, when there may have been many months or even years for officials to continue fighting long-standing policy battles, important decisions need to be made in the next two months to address the "fiscal cliff." In a way we have never seen before, both sides will have to move beyond contentious electoral politics and come together in the spirit of good governance to replace the abrupt and mindless spending cuts and tax increases set to take effect Jan. 1 with a gradual and intelligent deficit reduction plan.

Though there seems to be broad agreement that we should replace the fiscal cliff with something better, many partisans on both sides seem to think they have the upper hand in the negotiation. Democrats see the threat of large defense cuts and massive tax increases as a way to force tax increases for the rich. Republicans see large domestic spending cuts, tax increases on poor and middle-income Americans and the need to increase the debt ceiling as their own leverage points.

There has even been talk of going over the fiscal cliff to potentially strengthen each side's bargaining position. Going over the cliff, though, would mean betting the country on the hope that the other side will back down before it is too late. That's a bet we shouldn't take. The risk is simply too high.

Going over the fiscal cliff would mean allowing a massive and immediate cut to nearly every major government agency and activity, including those vital to our national security or economic growth. It would mean a large and immediate tax increase on nearly all Americans, not just the highest earners. It would mean a double-dip recession at a time when the economy is still very weak and many Americans are struggling to find work.

But simply punting on the fiscal cliff and continuing to add to the debt would be an even bigger mistake. It would show markets we cannot put our financial house in order. Instead of using this moment as leverage to score political points, our elected leaders should seize the opportunity to finally address the long-term imbalance between government spending and revenue, and to prevent a future debt-induced economic crisis.

What does that alternative look like? We already have the blueprints.

It's the type of bipartisan package toward which the fiscal commission I co-chaired with former senator Alan Simpson, the Domenici-Rivlin group, the Senate's "Gang of Six" and the Obama-Boehner negotiations all worked. It's a package large enough to put the debt on a clear downward path, relative to the economy, and designed well enough to promote, rather than disrupt, economic growth. It's a package that includes real spending cuts and structural entitlement reforms to make Social Security solvent while slowing the growth of federal health spending while protecting vulnerable populations. And it's a package that institutes fundamental tax reform that simplifies the code and encourages economic growth by cutting spending in the tax code to reduce rates and generate additional revenue for deficit reduction.

Most important, it's a package that can get bipartisan agreement. I was very encouraged by House Speaker John Boehner's remarks Wednesday indicating his willingness to support increased revenue from tax reform if it were accompanied by meaningful entitlement reform. Based on my conversations with President Obama, I am confident that he is willing to do his part to put our fiscal house in order and would support a comprehensive plan based on the general framework the fiscal commission put forward. While there will undoubtedly be many honest disagreements about the specific elements of a plan, I believe that both leaders are willing to make the type of principled compromise necessary to reach an agreement.

Though we won't be able to enact the entire plan in the few legislative weeks before year's end, policymakers could agree in the lame-duck session on the basic framework of the deal. Congress could enact a "down payment" of savings from spending and revenue policies, along with a process for achieving the remaining savings by July 4, with enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the promised savings are achieved. Designed appropriately, such a package would be credible enough to allow for a temporary delay of the scheduled sequestration policies and extension of expiring tax cuts.

I am confident that the president and Congress can agree to such a plan. Nearly three years' worth of work has gone into developing the policies and raising awareness on the need for a comprehensive plan. Members of both parties and both houses understand this. So do concerned citizens across the country - 300,000 of whom have signed a petition at FixTheDebt.org, demanding that Washington act.

The only ingredient missing is political will. Betting the country in the hopes of generating that political will is not the answer. Coming together for the greater good is.

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Erskine Bowles, who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, was co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

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