Simpson, Bowles urge debt reduction
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The two leaders of a bipartisan commission formed in 2010 to identify ways to fix the nation's financial problems said Monday that there's plenty of blame to go around for the nation's ballooning debt.
Alan Simpson, a former Republican U.S. senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, spoke at the Culture Center at the Capitol in Charleston on Monday, warning about growing financial problems from our national debt, which recently topped $16 trillion.
Simpson and Bowles are co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibilities and Reform, created by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who invited them to Charleston, said he wants to work with all sides to reach an agreement to cut the national debt.
"But Republicans don't want to look at [new] revenues," Manchin said, "while Democrats don't want to look at reforms."
Bowles, who said "deficits of over $1 trillion a year are like a cancer," said the largest problem the American government faces is health care.
"We spend twice as much as any other developed country on health care, measured by per capita spending or percentage of GDP [gross domestic product]. But we rank between 25th and 50th in categories including life expectancy and infant mortality," Bowles said.
Americans without health care insurance regularly go to hospital emergency rooms for health care, which costs between five and seven times as much as going to a doctor, he said.
Both Simpson and Bowles also questioned the nation's defense spending.
"We spend more on national defense that the next largest 15 largest countries put together, including China and Russia," Bowles said. "I don't think America can afford to be the world's policeman."
Simpson also questioned the growth in military spending.
"Erskine was right about military-industrial contractors. They will eat up the country's financial system," Simpson said.
The Simpson-Bowles commission's final plan was supported by 11 of the commission's 18 members voted for the plan, but a supermajority of 14 members was needed to make the plan official. Among the members who voted against it was Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., now the Republican candidate for vice president.
Several Democratic members of the commission also voted against the plan. They said the Simpson-Bowles plan cut too deeply into Social Security, Medicare and other social programs, and not enough on increasing revenues.
On Monday, Simpson said Social Security needs to change. "We need to raise the retirement age for Social Security to 67 by 2027 and to 68 by 2050," he said. He criticized AARP for opposing any Social Security eligibility changes.
Shortly after Social Security was created, there were 16 people working for every retiree collecting benefits, Simpson pointed out. Today, three workers pay into Social Security for every person collecting benefits. In another 10 years, there will be only two workers for every retiree on Social Security, he said.
Simpson also chided the George W. Bush administration for its unrestrained spending.
"Bush did not veto a single bill in six years, until he vetoed a stem cell research bill," Simpson said. "And he was funding two wars."
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also attended Monday's event. "We don't want to leave our children and grandchildren with a weaker America. We have to address the debt," she said.
In a statement Monday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., pointed out the Simpson-Bowles plan "recognizes that cuts alone will not balance the nation's checkbook.
"The Simpson-Bowles plan says that we must include revenue increases in any deficit reduction deal, and I strongly support this crucial principle," Rockefeller, who did not attend Monday's event, said in a statement.
Simpson also criticized Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform -- a lobbying organization that asks members of Congress to sign a pledge promising to never support new revenues in efforts to reduce the federal deficit.
"Grover Norquist is still walking the earth in his white robes," Simpson said.
Capito is a signer of Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," according to the group's website. Last year, she said, "We're in a fiscal crisis because we spend too much, not because we are taxed too little."
Many politicians who disagreed with the overall Simpson-Bowles report still said they appreciated the group's efforts to find common ground.
"There are no easy fixes and it is no secret that I disagree with parts of the Simpson-Bowles plan. But I deeply respect their work to find common ground on big issues, and I appreciate their visit to West Virginia."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.