By Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson
In February of 2010, when we accepted the job as co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (often referred to as “the Simpson-Bowles commission”), we thought we were taking on this debt challenge for our grandkids. But the more we examined the nation’s financial condition, the more we understood how dire the situation was. We weren’t taking this assignment on only for the good of our 15 grandkids; it turned out, nor for our seven grown children. We were taking it on for all of us.
That’s how critical this issue is. If we can’t get members of Congress to put aside their ultra-partisanship and pull together rather than apart, we face the most predictable economic crisis in history. Fortunately for everyone, it is also the most avoidable economic crisis in history.
During our service on the commission, Members of Congress would constantly come up to us and say “save us from ourselves.” All of these elected officials in both parties understand what our nation faces. They know what needs to be done, but fear the political consequences if they make the hard votes to reduce spending or increase revenues.
That is why we have joined with a distinguished group of former public officials, business leaders and concerned citizens to form the Campaign to Fix the Debt. Through this campaign, we hope to help make deficit reduction not only good policy but also good politics, and we are already making progress. Nearly 150,000 citizens from across the country have signed a petition calling on leaders in both parties to work together to find common ground on a bipartisan plan to reduce the debt based on the principles set forth by the Simpson-Bowles Commission.
The Simpson-Bowles commission offered a reasonable, responsible, comprehensive and bipartisan solution that won the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans on the commission. Most importantly, it would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade — enough to put the debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy.
Our plan showed that this problem is too large to cut our way out, it’s too large to tax our way out and it’s too large to grow our way out. We need a combination of cutting low-priority spending throughout the budget, reforming entitlements to slow the growth of health care spending and make Social Security solvent, and reforming the tax code to promote growth and generate revenue in a progressive manner. As we make these changes, we must be sure to phase them in gradually to protect what is clearly a very fragile economic recovery and to avoid cuts that would harm the most vulnerable in society.
The “fiscal cliff” is the exact wrong way to reduce the deficit. By mindlessly cutting spending across-the-board, letting tax rates go up on everyone and abruptly taking $500 billion out of the economy in nine months, going off this fiscal cliff would throw us back into recession.
Yet continuing on our current path by punting these measures would send a dangerous message to the markets that America is not willing to deal with our debt. Let there be no question in your mind: the fiscal path our nation is on is simply not sustainable. The only responsible course of action is to replace the fiscal cliff with the framework that gradually and thoughtfully reduces the debt over the next decade and puts America’s fiscal house in order.
As we travel the country talking to Americans from across the ideological spectrum, we hear the same thing from nearly all of them: they want real solutions, and they want them now. They are thirsting for the truth and bold leadership from their elected representatives. They understand that the problems are real; the solutions are painful; and there is no easy way out. They know they are going to have to give up something, but they are willing to do it so long as everyone else does. Above all, they just want their leaders to lead.
All of us must put aside our individual wish lists and think about what’s really important for the country. If we’re unwilling to do that, then future generations are going to be in a world of hurt. But if our leaders can agree on a plan to fix the debt, then the future of this country is bright.
Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are co-founders of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, co-chairs of the Moment of Truth project and co-chaired the president’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.