Debt Deadline

06.14.12

Alan Simpson Plans ‘Cialis Solution’ to Get Congress to Slash Debt

How is the budget crisis like erectile dysfunction? The ex-senator tells Howard Kurtz that Congress needs to rouse itself to raise taxes and slash spending.

Alan Simpson has a plan for stimulating members of Congress to finally act on the budget crisis.

It’s called the “Cialis solution,” he says, pausing for effect. “When it’s ready, it’ll be ready.”

Simpson credits the phrase to Erskine Bowles, his co-chairman on the presidential commission that produced a bold plan to slash the huge deficit, only to find both parties fleeing in horror. But with lawmakers now facing a fiscal calamity at year’s end, Simpson believes the looming deadline will stiffen their, uh, spines.

“We find guys who come up to us and say, ‘Save us from ourselves,’” the former senator tells me from his home office in Wyoming. “They know the toxic quality of it for their reelection. But they also know there’s nowhere else to go.”

While members of both parties have begun to hold secret strategy sessions on the Hill, Simpson says flatly: “Nobody’s going to touch anything between now and Nov. 6.” And after the election? “It will be chaos in America, fiscally.”

Simpson ladles out his disdain in equal portions for his own Republican Party as well as for the Democrats. The message is that they are in denial: “If someone says, we can get you out of this box without touching precious Medicare, precious Medicaid, precious Social Security, or precious defense, someone ought to just say, ‘You’re a fake. You’re a phony.’”

The guts of the report by Simpson and Bowles, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, was a call for deep spending cuts (for three-quarters of the $4 billion in savings) plus tax increases (for the rest). Among the painful changes: trimming Social Security benefits, freezing non-combat military pay, and capping Medicare spending at 1 percent over inflation. “This baby is the only thing that stings everybody,” Simpson boasts.

But what he describes as a “stink bomb” fouled the atmosphere at the end of 2010, as President Obama walked away from the panel he created and many congressional Republicans declared the recommendations dead on arrival.

The two sides tried again to strike a “grand bargain” last summer, but the deal between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner blew up, pushing the government to the brink of default.

Won’t those same partisan impulses doom any future agreement? Simpson dismisses this as a game.

“This baby is the only thing that stings everybody.”

“You can go back to your base on the left and say, ‘I was working my butt off to get a plan and someone mentioned entitlement reform and I walked out of that room,’” says Simpson. “The right guys will say, ‘I was working day and night, I couldn’t sleep, and someone mentioned a tax increase and I walked out of that room.’”

Sounds familiar. So why the renewed interest in the dusty documents of Simpson-Bowles? Because if Congress does nothing by Dec. 31, all the Bush tax cuts will expire and massive spending cuts—especially in defense—will automatically kick in. The pressure to reach some kind of deal will be enormous.

And if the esteemed members don’t like his plan? “Put in an amendment. Hold a hearing,” the ex-senator says. “It’s called legislating.”

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Howard Kurtz discusses Alan Simpson's "Cialis solution"

Simpson shows his Republican leanings as he praises Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who recently beat back a recall, for “guts” in going after public employee benefits and bargaining rights. But Walker did it by unilaterally pushing through an agenda that infuriated the other side, the opposite of Simpson’s approach of shared sacrifice.

Asked about Obama’s abandonment of the commission, Simpson replies by praising Bill Clinton and saying he would have embraced the recommendations. When I press him on Obama’s handling of the report, Simpson says: “If he had approved it, he would have been ripped to bits by his left, who would say you have torched entitlements, and Republicans would have unanimously trashed it.”

That sounds like a suicide mission—and the reason neither side wants to leap into the abyss on its own. How would Alan Simpson square that circle?

“People in America are disgusted by what they see as no leadership from anybody,” he says. “If you’re a real leader, you take a ton of crap.”