Fiscal cliff won't be the last you hear from Simpson and Bowles

Erskine Bowles, left, and  former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson testified before Congress in 2010. Erskine Bowles, left, and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson testified before Congress in 2010. Alex Brandon/AP file photo

As the fiscal cliff saga has played out, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson have been on a roadshow trying to build a groundswell of support for broad deficit reduction.

The high-profile duo toned it down recently, not wanting to upstage principal-level negotiations as talks between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner intensified.

But with an effort to bring a grand bargain back to the top of the agenda in Washington in early 2013, Bowles and Simpson will soon be heading back to the lecture circuit, trying to keep the pressure up, raising attention (and money) for the cause through efforts like the Fix the Debt campaign, which they cofounded.

“They will continue to be committed to speaking out and trying to raise awareness of the issues. They are interested in being helpful to the Congress and the administration in any way they can,” said Ed Lorenzen, the executive director of the Moment of Truth, a public awareness and congressional outreach project, which stems from President Obama’s fiscal commission that Bowles and Simpson co-chaired.

“There was a lot of work and knowledge on these issues from the fiscal commission, both on the substance and the politics. They want to continue to use that credibility and stature to keep pressure on Congress to follow through and to be the honest brokers as Congress considers further reforms, to say whether it is a serious effort.”

The Fix the Debt campaign, which star Simpson and Bowles as the top, led with Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, have courted the business community to the chagrin of many on the left who are fearful they will become a shill for corporate interests, protecting pet tax provisions while seeking entitlement cuts. The nonprofit has earned the support of 150 business leaders, wowing Washington insiders by quickly amassing $43 million for its lobbying and public relations campaign. Its message is simple: “Inaction is not an option,” is one of its slogans, arguing that the fiscal situation must be reined in with a balanced approach that includes both tax and entitlement reform.

The group has recently hired more staff and is preparing to continue its advocacy effort next year.

What influence Bowles and Simpson have though is hard to pinpoint.

They have enough pull with the White House and leaders on Capitol Hill to score meetings with key players, but there are many voices arguing for similar broad-ranging solutions, like the Domenici-Rivlin Debt Reduction Task Force, the Gang of Eight bipartisan group of senators, the Concord Coalition, and a host of Washington think tanks, so it is challenging to parse out how much credit is due to Simpson and Bowles.

“There are so many outside groups it’s tough to say that any one of them has a particular edge over the others. I’m a little skeptical. There are any number of voices that are pushing the urgency to make long-term changes in the fiscal situation,” said Brian Gardner, a senior vice president with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “I think they all get listened to, to a point, but I think it all comes down to political calculations…The Fix the Debt people and other groups tend to be very policy focused and don’t always get the politics of it.”

Simpson and Bowles names became synonymous with deficit reduction when they were catapulted to lead President Obama’s 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, two years ago. The commission failed by 3, to reach the 14-vote super majority threshold that would have sent their plan, commonly referred to as Simpson-Bowles, to the Senate for an up or down vote in December of 2010.

Many of the ideas they embraced, which they have been pushing since, were not new or unique. But they have worked feverishly to raise a sense of urgency surrounding the country’s fiscal problems and attempted to inject into the mainstream consciousness a gnawing understanding that any attempt to seriously address the root of the problems is going to have to rely on the concept of “shared sacrifice.”

Simpson and Bowles have developed a well-rehearsed routine, where Simpson, the former Wyoming Republican senator, takes the self-proclaimed “no-bullshit” shtick, underscoring the significance of the situation with scintillating shock value.

In August 2010, Simpson infamously had to apologize to the Older Women's League after he said the Social Security retirement program had reached the point “where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits.”

Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, with an investment banking background is popular among the Wall Street elite who favor him to become the next Treasury secretary, which now seems unlikely in part for that very reason. Bowles breaks down the deficit numbers as the straight man on the stump and provides the laugh track to Simpson’s relentless colloquialisms, as if to cue the audience to join in.

Some argue that Bowles and Simpson and their Fix the Debt effort have given the business community an outlet to channel their support for broad deficit reduction measures, in a symbiotic relationship that has raised the profiles of all involved.

“They have done a good job of energizing the business community. Our CEOs have been wanting to do something for a long time, but now they have a plug in point that is one that they all value,” said a financial services industry leader. “The messaging is clear, it’s concise. Everyone knows what I’m for when I sign up for this. So I think they have done a good job… allowing people to have a place where they can kind of sign up and join.”

Others are wary of the direction that Simpson and Bowles might push the discussion.

Michael Ettlinger, the vice president for economic policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, argues that if Simpson and Bowles and the Fix the Debt campaign want to hold lawmakers’ feet to the fire for a balanced solution, than they should be willing to call out both parties when they pull political stunts.

“If they keep doing what they’re doing I actually think they’ll impede progress to their own goals more than they’ll help. They provide political cover from the people who aren’t serious and undermine any sort of political awards anyone would get for being serious,” he said.

But Ettlinger added, they could make an impact.

“They have the potential for being really influential because they could really get into the trenches and push people towards serious solutions,” he said.

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