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Divided Deficit Reduction Panel Bears Blunt Critique

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Former Sen. Alan Simpson speaks with Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction Co-Chairman Patty Murray before the committee’s public hearing today.

A prominent group of former policymakers offered a bleak outlook today to the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, with former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles bluntly saying that he was concerned the panel would fail.

“Collectively I’m worried you are going to fail — fail the country,” Bowles said in a public hearing, flanked by budget partner and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), founding Congressional Budget Office Director Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Peter Domenici (R-N.M.).

Of the four budget experts, Simpson was by far the most frank in his assessment of both the group’s progress and the reality of Washington’s political climate, launching snide remarks at Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform in one moment, then at Congress’ lack of direction the next.

“If Grover Norquist is the most powerful man in America, he should run for president,” Simpson said of the man most famous for getting the vast majority of Republicans to sign his pledge against new taxes.

“If you spend a buck and borrow 42 cents of it, you’ve got to be stupid,” Simpson said earlier. “If you spend more than your earn, you lose your butt.”

The super committee has 22 days left to strike a deal and is struggling to find a bipartisan agreement that includes both entitlement reform and revenues. The committee must find $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years to go with nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts enacted under the Budget Control Act in August.

Democrats are loath to support a deal that only contains spending cuts, such as the debt limit deal or even the agreement to avert a government shutdown in the spring, and the four witnesses gave some cover to the Democratic position by urging the super committee to “go big.”

“This is a problem we can’t grow our way out of,” Bowles said. “It’s not a problem we can solely tax our way out of. ... It’s also a problem we cannot solely cut our way out of — I think you all have proved that over the last year.”

Both the Bowles-Simpson budget plan, which emerged last winter from the president’s deficit commission, and the Domenici-Rivlin plan, developed in 2010, embraced overhauls of the tax code and significant entitlement reform. In preliminary offerings made within the super committee last week, Democrats put forward a $3 trillion outline that included $1.3 trillion in revenues, while Republicans offered a $2.2 trillion plan that counted savings from cuts to Medicare beneficiaries as part of its revenue generation.

The rhetorical finger-pointing and tension between entitlements and taxes were on full display before the C-SPAN cameras today, with Democrats focusing their statements and questions primarily on taxes and Republicans focusing on entitlements.

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