After opening with several quotations from Shakespeare, Simpson got down to explaining what he said was the “seriously misunderstood business” of the commission.
Simpson emphasized the seriousness of the nation’s debt and that the recommendations were only a start in addressing the issue. Throughout the evening, he stressed the need for bipartisan efforts and shared sacrifice by Americans in resolving the crisis.
In the end, he expressed optimism, saying bipartisan efforts are taking place and President Obama’s budget “is a start” that includes a number of the commission’s recommendations.
Simpson cited the bipartisan nature of the commission he headed, made up of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, in rejecting the notion that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together to deal meaningfully with the crisis.
At one point, he reminded the audience that Bowles, while serving as President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff, was the “the last guy to balance the federal budget.”
“You can’t succeed in legislation without working with the other side,” Simpson said.
Nevertheless, he said, it took time for commission members to “learn to trust” each other before they eventually agreed that “deficit denial was dead as a dodo,” and they began to make progress.
Simpson acknowledged that as a senator, he had been part of the problem by giving Wyoming voters what they asked for, just as other Congressmen were doing.
“Every one of us was told to ‘bring home the bacon,’” he said. “Everybody brought home the bacon, and now the pig is dead.”
Simpson said there were many causes for the crisis, citing the Bush tax cuts despite the expense of fighting two wars as well the nation’s unwillingness to attack problems with popular entitlement programs and defense spending as examples.
“You can’t get there without dealing with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense,” Simpson said. “If you talk about reducing spending without dealing with (those programs), it will be a fake.”
He added, however, that Social Security changes should be aimed at keeping the system solvent, not cutting it.
He also criticized special tax breaks which he said amount to more than a trillion dollars that are really subsidies for special interests that benefit a very small percentage of Americans.
Ultimately, though, Simpson said, “I haven’t met a single soul in the U.S. who isn’t getting something from the federal government.”
The recommendations of the commission, which can be found on the Internet at www.fiscalcommission.gov, reflect the need for shared sacrifice because they call for broad cuts in programs.
“We hit everybody. I’ve not yet had an audience member who felt they were spared,” Simpson said.
Recommendations include a simplified, progressive income tax that lowers rates while reducing loopholes and special tax breaks along with reductions in just about every government program. Among recommended cuts are $250,000 defense contracts and some weapons systems.
“Defense spending ... is not all dedicated to keeping you safe,” Simpson said.
He noted, however, that the cuts were tempered by the “necessity to nurse a fragile economic recovery,” and that infrastructure must be maintained.
During questioning, one audience member, who was not identified, criticized the recommendations as “too little, too late.” He questioned the notion that government spending on infrastructure constitutes investment and said there was “a huge chunk” that could be cut from defense spending without hurting defense. In addition, he said Social Security is “flawed by its nature.”
“You’ve used the word sacrifice a lot, but you’re not really asking people to sacrifice very much,” the questioner said.
Simpson agreed with many of the points made, but reminded the speaker that the commission did recommend major cuts in defense spending and he defended government spending on the nation’s infrastructure as necessary spending.
To an audience member concerned about Social Security, he said, “Then help us fix it.”
If the system isn’t reformed, Simpson said, by 2035, the law would require that recipients would only receive payable benefits, not the scheduled benefits they expect.
“You’ll get 22 percent less than you expect if that happens,” Simpson said.
Simpson added that he believes Medicare recipients should be means tested as well. He said there is “something sick” about a wealthy person taking advantage of Medicare in order to pay a small amount for an expensive surgery, and he told of being dropped from the insurance he was willing to pay for when the company found out he “should be on Medicare.”
In addition, Simpson repeated his long-standing belief that some veterans are receiving unjustified medical benefits, and criticized lobbying groups, specifically naming the AARP, which he called a “totally selfish organization,” for refusing to consider support for needed changes in Medicare.
Simpson continued to express the belief that bipartisan work is possible, citing the work on the commission, and he noted a recent effort by Massachusetts liberal Rep. Barney Frank and Texas Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul on a plan to cut defense spending.
“Now, that’s bipartisanship,” he said. “Yes, it’s happening.”
Asked for his assessment of President Obama’s proposed budget, Simpson called it “a start,” and said the president appeared to have adopted “about 25” of the commission’s suggestions.
Asked about Obama’s avoidance of entitlement programs in his proposals, Simpson said, “He’s not going to jump off the cliff alone. They’d chew him up if he did that. He went as far as he could.” Simpson added that Republican leaders aren’t going to jump off the cliff either, but eventually there will be a meeting “in a dark room,” and a bipartisan approach will be found.
Simpson added he was encouraged that commission members who are serving in Congress were working elements of the recommendations into legislation.
Asked what citizens can do to have the recommendations adopted, Simpson noted that, while Sen. Mike Enzi had expressed qualified support for the commission’s work, Rep. Cynthia Lummis and Sen. John Barasso had rejected it.
“Write your Congressman,” Simpson said.