Not long after Erskine Bowles left Washington to return to North Carolina, the U.S. government's budget was in the black by $236 billion and there was a projected surplus for the next 10 years.
That was when Bowles was Democratic President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and he worked across party lines to negotiate a balanced budget with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate leader Trent Lott, both Republicans.
More than a decade later, the budget proposed by President Barack Obama includes a $1.6 trillion deficit, adding to the $12.3 trillion debt.
Bowles, now nearing the end of his tenure as president of the University of North Carolina system, has been asked to come back to Washington to see what he can do about the sea of red ink. Obama on Thursday named Bowles, a Democrat, and Republican former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming as co-chairmen of the 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility & Reform.
The 1990s were a time of rough partisan wars: the Gingrich revolution, the shutdown of the federal government and the impeachment of Clinton. But even in that atmosphere, the Clinton White House and the Gingrich-led Congress were able to cut a deal to balance the budget.
Today, Bowles faces an even more difficult environment. The Republicans in Congress initially balked at even participating in the commission.
Just as it took a bipartisan effort to balance the budget in the 90s, it took bipartisan action to get us into our current hole.
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