How to build the political will for budget cuts

By Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, guest contributors

FORTUNE -- Our nation faces the most predictable economic crisis in its history. Spending is rising rapidly, and revenues are failing to keep pace. As a result, the federal government is forced to borrow huge sums each year to make up the difference. If not addressed, burgeoning deficits will eventually lead to a fiscal crisis, at which point the world's financial markets will force decisions upon us.

Many will dismiss these warnings, preferring the ostrich strategy of putting their head in the sand to the painful practice of facing reality. Yes, interest rates remain low today mainly because the alternatives to U.S. debt aren't particu- larly attractive right now. But if we continue to borrow at this rate, the bond market will turn on us, and when it does, it will be swift and without warning.

Another reason investors keep lending the U.S. money is that they assume policy makers will address our fiscal problems before they lead to a crisis. They take confidence in Winston Churchill's famous observation: "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else."

But with an impending fiscal crisis, the country doesn't have time to test all the wrong answers before settling on the right answer -- a substantive fiscal plan, grounded in bipartisanship and shared sacrifice. Based on our experience, that will not happen without sustained pressure from the business community and the public demanding that the President and leaders in both parties in the House and Senate work together to develop a comprehensive reform plan by year's end.

The model for this type of fiscal plan exists in the final report of the President's Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which we co-chaired. Despite predictions that our commission was doomed, we produced a plan that took bold steps to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade by addressing not only domestic spending but also the four largest drivers of the federal budget: Social Security, health care, defense, and tax earmarks. We won the support of 11 of 18 of our commissioners - five Republicans, five Democrats, and one independent. We showed that a bipartisan super-majority is possible for the difficult decisions that must be made.

Recently Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, put forward a serious, honest plan for addressing our nation's fiscal challenges. But while it makes a constructive contribution to the debate, it falls short of the balanced, comprehensive approach necessary to achieve bipartisan support.

By contrast, the members of the commission were willing to accept painful choices in areas they very much cared about because everyone had skin in the game. Since then, more members of Congress have told us they would be willing to make the tough votes to enact a substantive fiscal plan, but only if members on the other side jump in the canoe at the same time. A process that uses the commission proposal as a starting point and incorporates ideas from the President's budget and chairman Ryan's plan will earn bipartisan support. In fact, 64 Senators -- 32 from each party -- recently called for bipartisan negotiations using our plan as the starting point.

Reaching a consensus will require the leaders in Congress and the administration to develop trust and mutual respect. It took us several months to develop this trust in the commission, but once we reached that point, we were able to make progress on policy issues. Equally significant, we made headway on some serious political work as well. That prospect for bipartisan compromise now offers us the best hope for genuine progress that benefits both sides, and more important, benefits the country.

Erskine Bowles is a former Clinton White House chief of staff and Alan Simpson is a former Wyoming Senator who led the President's deficit commission. To top of page

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