Having tried and failed three times to get Congress to agree on a comprehensive deficit reduction package, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are trying one more time to live the impossible dream of bipartisan budget agreement. The Republican and Democratic statesmen have offered up a new version of their tax raise/spending cut plan that was first proposed by the special commission they chaired back in 2010. It calls for changes to the tax codes (that would not raise rates, but would increase revenue) and about $600 million in spending cuts that will mostly come from Medicare and Medicaid. They claim it would reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion over ten years, or about a trillion dollars more than the White House is hoping to get. And not even the White House is really listening anymore.
With less than two weeks to go before the sequester kicks in, this last-ditch effort to strike a long-term budget deal is unlikely to go much further than the first. The original Simpson-Bowles plan never made it to Congress, because the commission that created it didn't have enough yes votes to support it. And since neither Simpson nor Bowles is actually in the Congress now and no one really asked them for their ideas, yet another proposal from two private citizens is unlikely to change the debate much.
Besides, a lot has changed since 2010. The enthusiasm for "deficit hawks," who want to reduce the budget gap at costs, has only waned —and the recovery has accelerated. The economy is still sluggish and unemployment pretty high, but things are still better than they were and it's no longer the conventional wisdom that the deficit is our worst problem. Or that this is the way to solve it. (Elections have a way of changing the subject.) The most notable proponent of the "Fix the Debt" crowd right now appears to be Joe Scarborough, who is having a tough time convincing people that he knows what he's talking about. As Jonathan Chait puts it, "The written word in general is just a terrible medium for Scarborough, hiding his winning personality while exposing his inaptitude for analysis."
The failure of Simpson-Bowles is part of the reason we ended up with the sequester in the first place. Republicans and Democrats simply cannot agree on the best way to fix the deficit, but since nearly three years of stalling and "can kicking" have failed to bring America to its knees, the country seems willing to live with the high deficit, if it keeps them from losing their favorite programs, or worse, losing their job.
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Despite the horribleness of the idea of letting the sequester happen, everyone seems resigned to the idea that it will. At remarks at the White House Tuesday morning, President Obama pleaded with Congress to prevent the March 1 cuts, urging either a long-term budget deal or a short-term delay. But in a show of just how little the Simpson-Bowles team matter at this point, the President only mentioned their new plan to show how his proposal does an even better job of fixing the problem. As recently as the Democratic National Convention in September, Obama said he was "still eager to reach an agreement based on the principles of my bipartisan debt commission" — the one that failed him in 2010 and overshadowed job creation in 2011 and that now, finally, appears to be in the White House's rearview mirror.