Though more optimistic than before, the co-chairmen of the president's deficit reduction panel said Wednesday night that there's a slim chance a congressional committee will "go big" and agree on a long-term solution to America's debt crisis.
Erskine Bowles, along with fellow co-chair Alan Simpson, warned of dire consequences if the committee fails to agree on a deficit plan.
Their appearance before an overflow audience at UNC Charlotte's new center city building came a week before the supercommittee's Nov. 23 deadline. It was the latest such appearance since the two led a bipartisan commission tasked with reducing the nation's rising debt.
"What Al and I are trying to do," Bowles said, "is get people to address the real causes (of the debt), to be honest about it, understand that everybody has to put aside their partisan sacred cow and do something big and bold."
The 12-member supercommittee - six Democrats and six Republicans - must agree on a plan to cut the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years or trigger billions in automatic cuts to defense and other federal programs.
The appearance by Bowles and Simpson, taped for broadcast Friday on WTVI, came amid widespread speculation that the committee remains far apart.
To the UNCC audience and before that to reporters, Bowles, a Democrat and former Charlotte investment banker, and Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, took their own pokes at sacred cows, including special interest groups representing seniors and veterans.
Their bipartisan commission recommended shaving $4 trillion from deficits over 10 years through a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes. Though a majority of commissioners approved the package, it wasn't the supermajority needed to force a vote in Congress.
And President Barack Obama, who named the commission, failed to embrace its recommendations.
"We were very, very disappointed," Bowles said. "The president made a political decision that he would be better off letting the Republicans go first (with a plan). I think that was a big mistake."
Bowles and Simpson have pushed the supercommittee to go beyond their mandate and cut at least $4 trillion. Bowles called that the "minimum" to avoid an untenable future debt load.
They're not optimistic.
"There's probably a 10 percent chance that they'll actually go big and do something big enough, bold enough and smart enough to slow the debt and get on a downward path and solve our long-term fiscal problem," Bowles told reporters before the taping.
The chance of failure, he said, is 50 percent.
Simpson said committee members may be swayed by Europe's example, where a debt crisis has roiled the continent and caused two governments to fall. But he said pressures from interest groups that have paraded before the committee have risen now that those groups have reached what he called panic level.
"The pressures on (lawmakers) are enormous," Simpson said, "not just internally but because of Greece and Italy and the stuff going on around the world. And we're on a trajectory ... that matches all those countries."
He criticized the AARP and veterans groups for failing to grasp the gravity of the problem. And he singled out as another impediment Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform. Simpson said Norquist - "in his Messiah role" - got all but six House Republicans to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.
Democrats have pushed for higher taxes. Republicans have called for deeper spending cuts.
Bowles said a recent Republican proposal to raise $300 billion in new revenues doesn't go far enough. But Bowles, who as President Clinton's chief of staff helped negotiate the 1997 balanced budget agreement, said raising taxes alone or just cutting spending won't fix what he called "the most predictable economic crisis in history."
Bowles said all the government revenue taken in annually pays for little more than entitlement programs and interest on the debt. Other programs, including two wars, are paid for with borrowed money.
He said that leads to paradoxical situations such as America's enhanced efforts to defend Taiwan from neighboring China. "We've got to borrow money from China to do it," he said. "That's crazy."
Simpson predicted that if the supercommittee fails to act in a big way, America could soon reach a "tipping point."
"It'll come," he said, "when the (stock) market decides that this is a dysfunctional bunch of squirrels who can't get anything done."
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