fresh voices from the front lines of change







Originally posted at Capital Gains and Games.

From the beginning there were two reasons I didn’t think the plan that Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson proposed to the deficit reduction commission they co-chaired was as special or game-changing as they and their supporters wanted us to believe.

First, as I said at the time it was announced, rather than being new thinking that would change the debate in some way, the plan appeared to be little more than the two chairs’ selections from the deficit reduction options book published by the Congressional Budget Office every year.

Second, it was hardly innovative. In fact, any and every comprehensive deficit reduction plan will have to include the same general mix of elements that Bowles and Simpson included in their plan.

And this was after I had repeatedly expressed outright skepticism about the value of any presidential or congressional commission on as intransigent an issue as deficit reduction. As someone who had served — proudly — on a presidential budget-related commission, I was talking from very personal experience. Even the much-ballyhooed Greenspan commission from the 1980s that is still often held up as the model of what a commission should be actually was an abject failure.

The only real value B-S could have provided — demonstrating that there was a deficit reduction something that Democrats and Republicans could rally around  — disappeared as soon as its two most important members from a political point of view — House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) — indicated that they were against what the commission’s two co-chairs announced. At that point it was clear that the the commission had completely and utterly failed.

That was December 2010. Since then, Bowles, Simpson and many of its supporters have tried to resurrect the dead plan and make people think their effort succeeded.

All of these efforts have done nothing more than drive nails into the B-S coffin.

Initially it was all spin. Following the collapse of their commission, Bowles and Simpson went on the road talking about their proposal as if it had actually been adopted even though it was never even voted on let alone approved. Even now the B-S commission’s website labels the co-chairs’ recommendation as “the Report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” even though it absolutely is not. 

B-S and some of their biggest supporters then made a huge mistake when they expressed surprise and extreme disappointment that the Obama administration didn’t make the co-chairs’ recommendation the basis of its fiscal 2012 budget, that is, the first one it submitted after the commission ended.

That demonstrated a level of political tone deafness that seriously hurt the credibility of what had now become a B-S cult. They were seriously suggesting that the Obama White House unilaterally support the tax increases and spending cuts included in the two co-chairs’ plan even though it was virtually guaranteed that the GOP would never agree to do the same and would punish Democrats for doing so.

The B-S cult also showed its political naivete by pushing ahead and suggesting that voter support for deficit reduction was large enough to protect the president and that he would thrive politically if he just supported what the co-chairs’ had recommended. The Bowles-Simpson insistence that there was a large, vocal constituency for substantial spending reductions and tax increases when even the results in their own commission, let alone the results of the past 30 years, proved just the opposite and made it easy for the White House, House, Senate, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives and just about everyone other than members of the cult to dismiss the B-S cause as nothing more than a political fringe effort.

In other words, the B-S “brand” was irreparably damaged. Instead of being commonly accepted as a sincere effort by well-meaning people to come up with a deficit reduction plan that could be supported by both political parties, had a chance of succeeding and, therefore, was something that many people wanted to be associated with, B-S became synonymous with bad politics and worse political judgment. That made it easy for members of Congress to run away from anything associated with it.

The fact that B-S supporters had become more of a political cult who drink their own Kool-Aid and believe what they’re saying when few others do was put on display for all to see last week when something called Bowles-Simpson was offered as an amendment when the House debated the fiscal 2013 budget resolution.

By the time the B-S amendment was announced, it was already clear that no amendment had any chance of beating the plan put together by Paul Ryan and offering it made no sense because it was guaranteed to fail. Moving ahead was the budget equivalent of a presidential candidate deciding to run in a primary that she or he has absolutely no chance of winning. Not only are the results bad, but it raises serious questions about the quality of the decision making that led to entering the race in the first place.

In other words, B-S supporters again looked and sounded politically tone deaf and not ready for prime time.

Second, even though what was offered during the budget resolution debate was not exactly what the co-chairs proposed, the cult kept referring to it as the B-S amendment as if that alone would encourage members of Congress to support it. The truth was just the opposite: The B-S amendment was defeated about as overwhelmingly as any legislation can be — 38 to 382.

The vote demonstrated that the deficit reduction B-S supporters were so confident was politically acceptable was anything but. It also showed that the B-S band has been so damaged that anything associated with it will have a harder rather than an easier time being taken seriously. Bringing it back again is like Ford saying it’s going to introduce a new version of the long-ago discredited Edsel or a movie studio announcing a sequel to Ishtar.

I have no doubt that when and if a bipartisan deficit reduction plan is adopted, it in many ways will look like what Bowles and Simpson thought a proposal should be. That’s inevitable because there aren’t that many choices.

I’m also convinced, however, that, because of the extraordinary missteps by the B-S cult, the new plan’s proponents will go to great lengths to convince people that it’s not related in any way to B-S.

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