Robert L. Bixby: Simpson-Bowles plan puts U.S. on more responsible fiscal path

03/01/2013 5:23 PM

03/01/2013 5:23 PM

With the federal debt rapidly rising and elected officials repeatedly locked in partisan budget battles, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson have once again presented the country with a more responsible path.

Let’s take it.

People around the country can help by encouraging their representatives in Washington, D.C., to use the latest Simpson-Bowles framework as the starting point for negotiations over comprehensive, long-term fiscal reform.

The framework, released Feb. 19, updates the bipartisan plan developed in 2010 by the national fiscal commission that Simpson and Bowles led. The framework is not meant as a revision of the original plan, they say, but simply builds upon where elected leaders were in their negotiations last year.

The need for Congress and President Obama to focus on comprehensive, bipartisan budget reform remains clear.

They can claim some credit for measures that begin to bring the nation’s finances under control. But the debt is still quite high by historical standards and remains on track to grow faster than the economy. An aging population, rising health care costs and higher interest payments are expected to put more and more pressure on the federal budget in the years ahead.

Yet the most difficult budget decisions – those involving health care, Social Security and tax reform – remain to be made.

The Simpson-Bowles framework offers a stark and welcome contrast to narrow partisan plans. Such plans may please the respective party bases, but they have no chance of becoming law.

Political bickering and brinkmanship have created a series of artificial crises that undermine public confidence, trouble the financial markets and threaten to disrupt our economy. It is time to replace crisis-management budgeting with a strategic framework that deals with the real fiscal and economic challenges we face.

The commonsense recommendations developed by Bowles, who served as chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, are right on target.

A key feature of their framework is shared sacrifice. It puts all parts of the budget in play. It does not pretend that popular programs can be exempted from scrutiny, or that no new revenues are needed.

The plan calls for an additional $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade, with roughly a fourth coming from health care reforms and another fourth from tax simplification and reform.

In addition, Simpson and Bowles recommend long-term structural reforms to make Social Security “sustainably solvent” and to ensure that the growth in health care costs will not outstrip overall economic growth.

Changes should be phased in to avoid harming the fragile economic recovery. But enacting a plan now with verifiable and growing savings will reduce business uncertainty and instill confidence that the United States is ready to put its fiscal house in order.

In any plan large enough to get the job done, there will be individual elements that many people will find objectionable. Continued gridlock, however, is the worst option for America.

Fortunately, at least some in Washington are willing to put the country’s future before political calculations and partisan considerations. Ordinary citizens should get behind these courageous leaders, voice support for the Simpson-Bowles framework, and encourage all of their elected officials to put it to good use immediately.

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