Debt Commission Co-Chairs Won't Bow To Criticism

The two co-chairs of President Obama's debt commission recognize that they face a tough selling job.

Congress won't act on their ideas to bring down the deficit unless 14 of the 18 members of their commission sign off on it. And the early reviews of the draft proposal they released last week have not been favorable.

"Our job is to visit with [fellow] commission members and see if we can get 14 of the 18 votes," former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming told All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "That's our mission."

Simpson is co-chairing the commission, officially known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, with Erskine Bowles, who served as White House chief of staff under President Clinton. Their final proposal is due Dec. 1.

'Can't Grow Our Way Out'

The nation's deficit topped $13 trillion this year and continues to grow at a rapid rate. Unless substantial changes are made, Bowles warned, interest payments on the national debt alone will top $1 trillion annually by 2020.

How To Get Out Of Debt?

A look at the groups releasing proposals about the nation's fiscal situation:

National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform

Headed by: Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming; and Erskine Bowles, chief of staff to President Bill Clinton

Recommendations: The final report from the president's deficit commission is supposed to come out by Dec. 1. But the co-chairmen released a draft proposal that would cut domestic and military spending, reduce benefits for some future Social Security recipients, and simplify the tax code. They also gave more than 50 examples of how to get $200 billion of spending out of the budget by 2015 in domestic and military cuts.

Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force

Headed by: Republican Pete Domenici, former Senate Budget Committee chairman; and Alice Rivlin, former Clinton budget director and Federal Reserve vice chair

Recommendations: The group is set to release its report on Wednesday, but Rivlin said Tuesday it will have a "much simpler, lower [tax] rate, broader base income-tax and corporate income tax with a considerably lower corporate tax rate that will bring us back into the range that other countries are in." It will also include a consumption tax, she said.

Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform

Headed by: Former Reps. Bill Frenzel (R-MN); Timothy Penny (D-MN); and Charlie Stenholm (D-TX)

Recommendations: On Nov. 10, the group released a report calling for a reform of the federal budget process by implementing "fiscal targets, budgetary triggers, and increased transparency." The commission recommended that the debt be stabilized at 60 percent of GDP by 2018.

"What we want people to understand is you have to do something real to deal with this deficit," Bowles said. "It's not a problem that we're going to grow our way out of."

But the co-chair's draft has been attacked from all sides since its release last week — even drawing criticism from some of their fellow commissioners.

More than the verbal brickbats hurled their way, Simpson and Bowles seem concerned by the silent treatment their plan has gotten from some powerful interest groups.

Referring to one of their most controversial ideas — the elimination of the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners — Simpson said, "We haven't heard anything from the National Association of Realtors because they know they're going to kill this baby flat."

Hoping The Public Cares

Both Bowles and Simpson expressed hope, however, that as the public gets to know the details of their plan — notably, its cuts to personal income tax rates — they will support it, despite the sacrifices it would entail.

"In my viewpoint, the people are way ahead of the members of Congress on this," Bowles said. "I think the era of deficit denial is over."

A CBS News poll released last week found that only 4 percent of Americans thought the deficit should be the top priority for Congress next year, well below the economy and jobs (56 percent) and health care (14 percent).

Pay Now Or Pay Later

Other high-profile debt commissions have released their own proposals in recent days. In many ways, these would impose more radical changes than the Simpson-Bowles plan.

Despite the differences, Bowles said, the important thing is that they all lay out plans to deal with the budgetary mess "in a responsible, serious manner."

Bowles said he and Simpson would rather get eight commission votes for their plan, or even just two, than 14 votes for "something that's a whitewash.

"You're going to see us work hard over the next two weeks to try to build support for a proposal that we can submit Dec. 1," Bowles said. "You won't see us weaken the proposal that we've already made."

That's why it's important that the idea of deficit reduction has become central to Washington debate, he said.

"People are either going to face up to this issue today, or I'm telling you, the markets are going to force them to face up to it in a couple of years," Bowles said. "And when they do, I can guarantee you it will be swift, and it will be severe."

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