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A Reboot for the Simpson-Bowles Plan

Bowles, left, and Simpson

Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Bowles, left, and Simpson

Congress is in recess this week, but Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles showed up in Washington on Tuesday morning to harangue the legislators, anyway. The leading evangelists for deficit reduction—Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Bowles, the former White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton—were attempting to reboot a campaign for greater austerity that has faltered since the fiscal-cliff deal President Obama signed in early January.

The vehicle for this effort is a new plan. (Actually, it’s the outlines of a plan—Bowles told reporters that they’re withholding details until various think tanks have had a chance to weigh in.) In broad strokes, it would cut the projected deficit by a further $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years, over and above the $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction already passed by Congress and signed by the president in the last two years. The point, Bowles stressed, was not simply to stabilize the debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio but to put it on a downward trajectory.

Despite the $2.5 trillion achieved in cuts and tax increases, Bowles expressed frustration with how Washington has approached the long-term deficit, particularly growing entitlement costs. “The idea of a ‘grand bargain’ is at best on life support,” he admitted.

The difficulty of cutting entitlements programs such as Medicare and Medicaid—and the potential risk to politicians who endorse it—was illustrated during a press conference that Bowles and Simpson held at the Newseum. As the proceedings were getting underway, protesters from the group repeatedly interrupted. “We want you to be serious about what Americans need: good jobs and social services!” one protester shouted as she was being dragged out by security. Undeterred, Simpson said it wasn’t too late to achieve reductions of the scope he and Bowles favor. “If we were this close in December,” he said, “we want these guys to pick it up and move it along. That’s what we’re here for.”

Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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