Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, champions of deficit reduction through both spending cuts and tax increases, said Tuesday evening too many congressmen value their own re-election over working with both parties to tackle the national debt.
They also declined to pick a favored outcome in November’s election.
“If (getting re-elected) means more to you than patriotism, then you shouldn’t even be in Congress,” said Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, during an appearance with Bowles at Wake Forest University.
The pair, authors of a so-far unsuccessful bipartisan debt reduction plan commissioned by President Barack Obama in 2010, largely reprised their argument in favor of compromise in Washington that they’ve advocated for over the past two years.
Their plan was never voted on by Congress. But it has increasingly drawn attention in the last few months as the presidential, House and Senate elections have heated up. Both parties have advocated for at least pieces of the plan.
Bowles, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and former president of the UNC system, again called the national debt – currently at $16 trillion – a “cancer that will destroy the country from within.”
He described his team’s work to tackle five areas of annual spending: health care, national defense, the tax code, Social Security and debt interest payments.
He said the deficit problem is not one that can be solved only by spending cuts or solely by tax increases, the seeming impasse between the Democratic and Republican parties.
“We’re running out of money. Now we’ve got to start thinking. We have to make those hard choices,” Bowles said. “If we do that, then the future of this country and of your country is very bright. And if we don’t, we are well on our way to becoming a second-rate power.”
In a more bitingly sarcastic speech, Simpson decried special interest groups such as the AARP that make changing entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid a political liability. He also criticized political parties that will push a politician out in primary for seeking bipartisanship.
“There is an absence of trust in Washington today,” he said. “You really have an absence of people in the sensible center.”
Bowles and Simpson became a team in 2010 after Obama named them to lead a bipartisan commission to put together a plan to cut the federal deficit. It ultimately came up with a plan to cut $4 trillion over 10 years through tax increases and spending cuts.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have said their tax plan is similar to Bowles-Simpson, though Bowles has disagreed. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden also referenced the Bowles-Simpson commission while at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte earlier this month.
Bloomberg reported last week that a small group of senators, both Democrats and Republicans, seek to bring back the Bowles-Simpson plan in the lame-duck session of Congress next month. Bowles said Tuesday that he and Simpson have 40 senators and 150 House members on board with a version of their plan.
For their part, both Bowles and Simpson have kept the plan in the public eye, co-writing op-ed pieces and appearing together around the country.
The pair has appeared twice in Charlotte in the past year. In May, they kicked off the Nuclear Energy Institute’s annual conference by saying the country’s political partisanship could lead to a preventable economic crisis.
Last November, the two talked at UNC Charlotte about the congressional “supercommittee” created after the debt ceiling fight in 2011, and tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion from the deficit to avoid automatic spending cuts. It ultimately did not reach a deal.
Simpson spoke with a group of Wake Forest students before the talk, criticizing the polarization between the two political parties and calling out his own for being unwilling to compromise.
India Prather, a senior from Charlotte majoring in political science major, said after speaking with the former senator that she isn’t completely on board with the Bowles-Simpson plan, but that she embraces its ideas.
“I’m in favor of the concept of it,” she said. “I think if anything, it needs to be revised. It needs to be more long-term so America can steadily improve.”