If Alan Simpson ever writes a handbook about the nation’s exploding fiscal crisis, perhaps he can call it Deficits for Idiots.
“It used to be you’d go to Washington and bring home the bacon. Go get the money,” the former Republican senator from Wyoming said on Wednesday afternoon. “You can’t bring home the bacon anymore because the pig is dead.”
Simpson, who co-chaired President Obama’s bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, was addressing the daylong 2011 Fiscal Summit sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in Washington, where a posh crowd, including real-estate mogul Mort Zuckerman and high-tech venture capitalist Alan Patricof, listened to former President Bill Clinton, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and other experts argue the finer points of America’s ruinous borrowing.
The preternaturally colorful Simpson, who is a spry 79, summarized an otherwise ineffable, and maybe insoluble, problem with a series of homey epigrams.
On runaway credit-card spending: “If you spend a buck and borrow 41 cents, you gotta be stupid.”
On the special interests’ use of fuzzy math to lobby members of Congress: “If you torture statistics long enough, eventually they’ll confess.”
“I knew this was going to happen. I knew there was going to be Mediscare and demagoguery,” Paul Ryan told me.
On folks who prefer to deny the looming catastrophe and stick with the status quo: “Dig a trench and your kids will be pickin’ grit with the chickens.”
As the Senate was deep-sixing Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal by vote of 57 to 40 and unanimously rejecting President Obama’s budget by 97 to 0, Simpson also praised Vice President Biden’s bipartisan negotiations to raise the debt ceiling while achieving long-term deficit reduction.
“I trust Joe Biden—I’ve known him for 35 years,” Simpson said.
He was less generous about rabid tax hike opponent Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who’s been spending the last several months terrorizing elected Republicans who dare deviate from the party line and seems to have played a pivotal role in the recent abrupt departure of Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn from the so-called Gang of Six senators attempting to strike a deficit-reduction deal.
Norquist—as Simpson said without prompting during a panel of pundits and policy experts—is “some guy just wandering around in the swamp, pushing people like [Utah Sen.] Orrin Hatch off a cliff like he’s a commie. What kind of nut is this guy?”
Norquist, 54, retorted in a phone interview: “It’s tough to respond to such trenchant and witty repartee… I don’t ever want to get old.”
He added that he’s mystified by Simpson’s reference to Hatch. “Orrin Hatch actually agrees with me,” Norquist said. “I have nothing but wonderful things to say about Orrin Hatch’s wisdom and sound tax policy.”
Simpson was followed to the stage by Mitch Daniels, who—a few days after announcing that, after much contemplation with his wife and daughters, he isn’t running for president, after all—sported a big square bandage in the middle of his forehead.
“It was a gym injury,” the diminutive Daniels confided after submitting to a mild interrogation by fellow Indianan George Will, who celebrated the governor’s record of turning deficits into surpluses—the polar opposite of Daniels’ unhappy experience as George W. Bush’s first budget director. “I was done working out on Friday afternoon and some guy threw open a door. So 20 stitches later,” the governor trailed off. “It was pretty spectacular. Head injuries bleed a lot, and tend to look worse than they are. But with all the scar tissue on me, what’s one more?”
I asked the governor if he’s relieved that, after what some commentators described as dithering, he’d finally decided his non-future in the White House.
“I don’t know about ‘relieved.’ I think it’s good to have it behind me,” he said. “It’s good to decide. I owed a lot of people an answer. We didn’t really dither with it. Some people felt that way.”
In the ornately columned Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, an extravagant reminder of the good old days when Washington was unconcerned with belt-tightening, Bloomberg Television’s Judy Woodruff grilled four members of what is now, since Coburn’s escape, “The Gang of Five.” They include Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Mark Warner of Virginia, and Republicans Mike Crapo of Idaho and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota had to stay behind to manage Wednesday’s budget debate.
In today’s toxically politicized environment, the senators complained, it’s perilous work to negotiate spending cuts, entitlement reform, and especially revenue increases across the aisle.
“The knives came out and they haven’t gone back since,” Crapo said. “The arrows and attacks have been intense. Nevertheless,” he added, “we can get past that.”
Chambliss revealed that the gang is nearing the completion of its work, having apparently settled some of the easier questions, and could even be ready to announce an agreement in the next couple of weeks. “In any negotiation, the major issues are always the ones you put off till the end,” he said, adding that he hopes Coburn can be lured back into the fold. “It’s going to be a difficult process, at best.” Chambliss predicted that the ultimate agreement is “going to be a plan that everybody’s going to dislike in some respects because all of America is going to have to share in the sacrifice if we’re truly going to get this debt under control.”
Over the phone, anti-tax disciplinarian Norquist hinted darkly that he doesn’t like what Chambliss has to say about “shared sacrifice.” No, he doesn’t like it at all.
“That generally means he wants to raise taxes,” Norquist said. “One good sign is that even people who apparently wish to raise taxes can’t say the word. They kind of know it’s inappropriate. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”
Earlier in the day, Obama adviser Sperling harshly critiqued Republican budgeteer Ryan, whose plan, supported by all but four House Republicans, was considered a big factor in Tuesday’s special election victory of a Democrat in Western New York’s heavily Republican 26th Congressional District. A mischievous television spot, depicting a Ryan lookalike pushing a wheelchair-bound granny off a cliff, received much attention in the race.
Focusing on the Wisconsin Republican’s program to achieve deficit reduction through Medicaid cuts, Sperling claimed at one point that it “will lead to millions of poor children, children with serious disabilities, children with autism, elderly Americans in nursing homes, losing their coverage or… having it significantly cut.” Sperling added that “we are not criticizing their plan. We are just simply explaining their plan.”
Clinton also attacked Ryan’s proposals—though when the two briefly chatted backstage before the congressman submitted to questioning by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, the former president lamented some of the Democrats’ hardball tactics. “I hope they don't use [Tuesday's election results] as an excuse to do nothing” on Medicare, a witness heard Clinton muse to Ryan, who was being trailed Wednesday by an ABC News camera crew.
I asked Ryan how it feels to be a piñata.
“I have now for five years running. I’m getting used to it,” he answered, though the granny commercial “definitely took on a whole new level. It really doesn’t get to me. We’ve got to fix these problems. I knew this was going to happen. I knew there was going to be Mediscare and demagoguery.” As for his wife, Janna, back in Janesville, Wisconsin, “she just laughs it off,” Ryan said.
Clinton—who as the 42nd president presided over four straight budget surpluses—was his usual virtuosic self, pulling arcane statistics seemingly out of the ether to buttress his economic arguments.
At one point, during a Q&A with PBS correspondent Gwen Ifill, he explained why the government is chronically lax in enforcing trade agreements against foreign countries that abuse the system but also buy U.S. debt.
Because of America’s inability to get its fiscal house in order, Clinton said, “we are in increasing amounts of debt from countries that enjoy big trade surpluses with us…. Our trade enforcement has dropped 80 percent [in the last decade]. For good reason: Nobody slugs their banker. Get up tomorrow morning and have an extra cup of coffee, and go down there and just knock the living daylights out of your personal banker,” Clinton added, to laughter. “Could you get a loan the next day?”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.