WASHINGTON — It's going to require sacrifice, it might not be pretty, and people across the political spectrum will have to come together to get it done, warns Bruce Reed, the executive director of the presidential commission that's finding ways to stem the red ink of the nation's deficit.
Reed has worked for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, and now is running President Barack Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Born in Boise and raised in Coeur d'Alene, his mother, Mary Lou Reed, is a former Democratic state senator.
Reed and the once-wonky question of how to reduce the deficit have taken center stage in the weeks following the election, as the 18-member commission prepares to release its final proposal and vote on it at the end of the month. It'll take 14 votes to send a plan to Congress to vote on — a prospect that's unlikely even though promises to reduce government and the deficit dominated the 2010 campaign season.
The deficit isn't going anywhere, though, Reed said, and he's pleased so many people are talking about the proposal by the co-chairmen of the commission: Democrat Erskine Bowles, the president of the University of North Carolina system, and former Republican Senate leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
"We're delighted with the attention that the issue is getting," he said. "It's about time for a serious debate about this issue. Whether we like it or not, bringing down the deficit is going to be the top issue in the next few years. We don't have choice in the matter. We can't go on borrowing like this forever."
WHO IS REED?
Reed is a graduate of Princeton University and a former Rhodes Scholar. His first job was in then-Sen. Al Gore's office. He went to work for then-Gov. Bill Clinton, helping to craft the 1992 platform that won Clinton the White House.
Reed and his wife, Bonnie LePard, never thought they'd stay in Washington — his wife took the Colorado bar exam and they envisioned a life out West, Reed said. But with two children, now teenagers, they ended up staying. He and LePard were high school sweethearts in Coeur d'Alene, and they return to Idaho twice a year to see their family. They live in Washington, D.C.'s, Cleveland Park neighborhood, near the National Zoo.
Reed for the past decade has been the CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council, the party's centrist think tank.
"I was lucky — my first two bosses ended up as president and vice president of the United States," Reed said.
Obama, Reed said, "takes the long view, which is critical on an issue like this. Like most Americans he shares the frustration that Republicans and Democrats can work together everywhere else but here in Washington. We hope that our commission can be one small step forward for cooperation and common sense in this town."
Reed had high praise for the other Idahoan on the commission, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, whose interest in tax code reform landed him his spot on the deficit commission. Reed's mother served with Crapo in the Idaho Senate; this is Reed's first time working with Crapo.
"He's the greatest," Reed said. "If we had a Congress full of Mike Crapos, this problem would be solved already. He's a principled conservative, a patriot, and determined to get something done. He is just a joy to work with, and I've been incredibly impressed by how determined he is to prove that we can do this."
The two Idahoans also "spend some time complaining about the BCS," said Reed, who in September took his teenage son to the Boise State-Virginia Tech football game at FedEx field outside of Washington, D.C. They've even floated some ideas — joking, of course — to root out federal subsidies to the Bowl Championship Series that might help Boise State inch closer to a shot at a national championship game. All in the interest of reducing the deficit, of course, Reed said.
Crapo was equally complimentary of Reed's work — although he has mixed feelings about the recommendations issued earlier this month, and would like to see the focus remain on further reductions in spending.
"I'm impressed with him," Crapo said of Reed. "He's a solid guy and a solid thinker and he has been able to avoid the partisanship, I think, very well."
The Bowles-Simpson proposal wipes out nearly $4 trillion from projected deficits by the end of the decade by slashing military spending, suggesting trims to Social Security benefits and proposing an elimination of some tax breaks.
Their plan also reduces individual income and corporate tax rates by ending or limiting some tax loopholes. That includes the mortgage interest deduction, which would be limited for second homes and mortgages on homes worth more than $500,000.
It also calls for lowering Social Security benefits for wealthier retirees and increasing the retirement age as life expectancy rises.
"Our plan, in many ways, resembles the Conservatives' plan in Britain," Reed said. "Theirs moves more quickly, because the U.K. has to. Our recovery is a little more fragile, and our debt problem, although incredibly serious, is not quite as urgent, because our problems aren't as bad as the other guys'. That gives us a little more time to phase in these tough changes. But not much."
The proposal is one of several released this month by think tanks and budget experts, but it's the only one that Congress could actually vote on. It immediately drew fire from the edges of the political spectrum — those on the right criticized it for not cutting spending enough, and it was assailed from the left for not doing enough to help the poor or consider tax hikes at higher income levels.
These are not easy decisions, Reed acknowledged, but they must be made.
"People have spent the past two years sitting around their kitchen tables solving this problem — or wrestling with this problem — in their own lives," he said. "Figuring out what they can afford, or what they have to do without. It's about time Washington did the same. It's not going to be easy, and plenty of established interests are going to try to hold onto the way things were, but sooner or later we're going to have to face up to these tough decisions, and we'll be a lot better off if we do it sooner."
Reed is probably best known for his work on welfare reform during the Clinton administration, and he said he's been able to draw a number of parallels with the deficit commission's challenge.
"The American people saw the old welfare systems as a sign that the government just didn't get it," he said. "It was doing more harm than good, and it was hurting the people it was meant to help. I don't think there's been a more difficult issue to bridge the partisan gulf than that over the last three decades. So I'm used to getting yelled at for trying to do the right thing."
"The other lesson I took from that," he added, "is that if you can find people of good faith who share a common goal, then you can sit down and work out the details, no matter how much it riles up the status quo. If the American people want it and it's the right thing to do, and good people are willing to take the heat to get it done, anything can happen."
Reed, who will go back to his job at the DLC when the work of the commission is complete, said he will continue to be an advocate for deficit reduction, no matter where he's working.
"I may have to go into the witness protection program after all we've proposed," he said. "But this has been a great experience because I really admire the members of Congress who are working on it, and I like working across party lines, and the issue we're addressing is so important. No matter what, I'm going to keep pushing this cause, because this is going to take us years to overcome the hole we dug for ourselves. So I'll be out there continuing to make trouble."