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Listen up, Washington; we've been there

Numbers tick upward on the National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue in New York on July 26, as the August 2 deadline nears.
Numbers tick upward on the National Debt Clock on Sixth Avenue in New York on July 26, as the August 2 deadline nears.
  • CNN asked longtime Washington figures to give advice on debt standoff
  • Arlen Specter: President should invoke 14th Amendment to exceed debt limit
  • David Stockman: The crisis is the debt, not the ceiling; deficits must be lowered
  • Bill Frenzel: Congress should pass competing bills, then reconcile them

(CNN) -- CNN has invited prominent former leaders and policymakers to offer their advice on the debt crisis standoff in Washington. Here are their thoughts.

Alan K. Simpson, a Republican, served as a U.S. senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997. He was co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan panel established by President Obama to find ways to reduce the federal debt.

Along with most Americans, I'm frustrated and frankly disgusted by what is going on in Washington right now. Our leaders have known for many months now that the debt limit would need to be increased. My pal Erskine Bowles and I have been warning Americans for over a year that our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal course.

And yet here we are, days away from a potential default and we still haven't increased the debt limit or taken any meaningful action to deal with our growing and gnawing debt.

Fromer Sen. Alan K. Simpson
Fromer Sen. Alan K. Simpson

We simply cannot afford gridlock and delay as each party stubbornly holds out for its "ideal solution." We also can't afford watered down mush where each side agrees to leave the other guy's priorities untouched. The only way to solve our fiscal crisis is through a bipartisan agreement where everyone prods their own sacred cows into the cattle chute, and everyone gives up something they like to protect the country they love.

In the end Congress will find a way to muddle through the current debt limit crisis, in part by promising to deal with the debt later. But promises won't cut it with the American public or with our creditors anymore. There's talk about creating a special committee to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit. That sounds familiar.

But if they are serious and honest, they'll come to the same conclusion we did on the Fiscal Commission -- that the solution requires some damn tough choices across the budget, cutting spending in defense, domestic spending, entitlements and spending in the tax code. What we need is not more plans, but the political will to act on them.

Fortunately, there are six Senators, three from each party, who have shown the guts and courage to provide leadership to get something done. They are: Democrats Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Mark Warner of Virginia, and Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. This Gang of Six has been working on a bipartisan plan based on that of the Fiscal Commission, and they have found many other senators willing to support the plan because it asks for sacrifices from everyone.

Whatever promises are made about coming up with deficit reduction later must be backed up by guaranteeing a vote on the Gang of Six plan if leaders fail to follow through on coming up with a budget plan. Senators would be forced to stand up and say whether they are willing to put the national interest ahead of special interests, whether they are willing to put the oath they took to defend the constitution and our republic ahead of pledges to special interest groups.

As soon as the Gang of Six came out with its plan, the slings and arrows started zooming in from both sides. Yet that is the strength of the plan. Everyone would have "skin in the game." The best fiscal plan -- a plan of the magnitude necessary to right our fiscal ship and of the balance necessary to draw enough bipartisan support to actually be enacted -- is the one that offends the most folks on both sides.

So regardless of what happens in the coming days with the debt limit, I ask all of you who care so much about our nation's future; I say, just pray for the Gang of Six!

John Danforth, a Republican, served as a U.S. senator from Missouri from 1976 to 1995. He is a partner at the international law firm Bryan Cave and a member of the board of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Political leaders should shift their focus from near-term exigencies to long-range economic policy. They should do this by agreeing to keep in place current spending and tax levels for, say, the next two years and extend the debt limit in exchange for a process that sets us on a course that would reach fiscal restraint over the next 10 years.

There is broad bipartisan agreement on two fronts: that government should not raise taxes or substantially reduce spending during the recession and that we should extend the debt limit to prevent default. The major point of disagreement concerns the long-term: the size and cost of government at the beginning of the next decade. How much government do we want, and how do we intend to pay for it?

Former Sen. John Danforth
Former Sen. John Danforth

The question of how much government we want can be expressed as federal spending as a percent of the total economy (gross domestic product). Congressman Paul Ryan would set federal spending at about 21% of GDP in 2021 and put it on a path toward 15% in 2020. Since the end of World War II, the average has been 20%.

In his budget of February, President Obama submitted a target of 24% in 2021, presumably well after the end of the recession and after withdrawal from our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The difference between a federal government that spends 20 or 24% of GDP would have enormous philosophical and practical consequences. Because nearly 2/3 of federal spending is in transfer payments, that is, check-writing programs to or on behalf of individuals, serious spending constraint is necessarily unpopular. On the other hand, raising taxes, even on millionaires and oil companies, can restrict economic growth.

The appropriate size of federal spending as a percent of GDP will not be resolved by politicians without input from the American people; it will not be decided before the 2012 presidential election. But it can and should be squarely before the public in the next campaign. I suggest that we extend the debt limit now and maintain for two years the status quo on taxes and spending, provided that there is a clear commitment by Obama, leading Republican candidates for the presidential nomination and congressional leaders of both parties to make federal spending as a percent of GDP the dominant issue in the 2012 campaign.

It will be important for media coverage and the presidential debates to insist on the centrality of this issue, and not let the candidates wander off into extraneous matters, such as gay marriage. A further proviso is that congressional leaders agree to view the 2012 election, whatever the result, as a mandate to accept the will of the people with regard to federal spending as a percent of GDP without parliamentary obstruction from either party.

Arlen Specter is a former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania and chairman of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence.

If I were president, I would hold in reserve the obscure provision of the 14th Amendment as a last-ditch solution to the debt ceiling crisis. For a totally different purpose after the Civil War, a clause was inserted in the 14th Amendment that the "validity of the public debt ... shall not be questioned." That provision could be used for President Obama to unilaterally raise the debt limit.

Obama said his lawyers "are not persuaded that that is a winning argument." That statement leaves him considerable wiggle room. To say more would take all the pressure off of Congress and let him do all the dirty work.

Former Sen. Arlen Specter
Former Sen. Arlen Specter

The current crisis presents two unusual opportunities: First, it could yet produce sufficient pressure on Congress to restructure federal spending and end unconscionable tax breaks; second, the unprecedented publicity is exposing the atrocious conduct of both parties so the nonvoters, who have in effect put the extremists in office, may be motivated to go to the polls and throw all of the rascals out.

Obama has gotten some important cover, perhaps in a shrewdly calculated way, from former President Clinton, who said he would unilaterally invoke the 14th Amendment provision "without hesitation ... and force the courts to stop me."

This extraordinary assertion of executive authority could be justified because the Congress has, in effect, abdicated its constitutional responsibility to agree on legislation through the bicameral conference before the drop-dead date, leaving a vacuum that must be filled if the government is to function. The courts might duck the issue, saying no one had standing to sue. If the courts took the case, a decision would take months, if not years.

Although a 1935 Supreme Court case casts doubts on its applicability, enough constitutional experts have already spoken up to give the move credibility. It would be bold and likely cause some temporary talk of impeachment, but history has credited daring presidents who took unpopular stands to be later heralded as correct and courageous -- like President Ford's pardon of President Nixon and President Truman's firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

It could give Obama a big boost with the man on the street who would like to see some decisive action out of Washington for a change.

David Stockman, a Republican, served as a U.S. representative from Michigan and as the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1981 to 1985.

The crisis lies in the debt, not the ceiling. Kicking the can with a six-month ceiling increase is the worst possible alternative because it allows the politicians of both parties to continue making the Big Fiscal Lie. The Republican "no tax increase" position is preposterous; we are collecting less than 15% of GDP in taxes, the lowest since 1950, and spending 24% of GDP.

Former Rep. David Stockman
Former Rep. David Stockman

More than half of that is national security and Social Security, and the Republicans don't have a plan to cut a dime from either. Likewise, the Democrats are lying when they say Social Security is not part of the fiscal problem.

Benefits will exceed payroll taxes by $50 billion this year alone, and the red ink only gets deeper with time. Social Security should be subject to a stringent means test on the top 15 million affluent retirees, so that there is something left for the 40 million lower-income elderly who are already on the ragged edge.

Finally, the $800 billion defense and security budget is a relic of the Cold War, which ended 20 years ago, and should be cut by $200 billion. We no longer have any industrial state enemies, and we have been fired as the world policeman, so it is time to mothball some carrier battle groups, ground some air wings, drastically reduce our troop strength, end the futility of Afghanistan and stop buying multibillion-dollar high-tech weapons that we can't afford and don't need.

In the meanwhile, both the Boehner plan and the Reid plan are just big numbers flimflam. Their 10-year discretionary caps can't be enforced, and the debt crisis is right now. In the next two years, where it really counts, each would save only $60 billion, or 1%, of the baseline spending of $7.5 trillion. That's a pathetic joke.

We are borrowing $6 billion per day with no end in sight and rolling the dice in the hope that apparently clueless bond fund managers will continue to buy the debt of a quasi-bankrupt country. One day soon, they won't. But then it will be too late.

William S. Cohen was a Republican U.S. senator from Maine and served as secretary of defense under President Clinton. He is chairman of the Cohen Group, an international business consulting firm.

Since leaving the Senate 14 years ago, I have witnessed a further gravitational pull away from center-based politics to the extremes on both the right and left. Those who seek compromise and consensus are increasingly depicted with scorn as a "mushy middle" that is weak and unprincipled. By contrast, those who plant their feet in the concrete of ideological absolutism are heralded as heroic defenders of truth, justice and the American way.

Former Sen. William Cohen
Former Sen. William Cohen

We are now seeing the costs of this lurch away from the center. Our country is in crisis, and Washington is paralyzed. The American people, and the global markets, are losing confidence in the ability of our government to function. They see our ship of state sinking under the weight of too much debt. But instead of all hands on deck working together to bail out the ship, elected leaders of both parties are engaged in rhetorical finger-pointing when they should be engaged in practical problem-solving.

The tea party has done our country a great service by forcing Washington to deal with the debt, an issue that we have been evading and avoiding for decades. Our country has been engaged in fiscal child abuse. With each passing year, we are inflicting damage upon our children and grandchildren that we cannot see but that they will feel for their lifetime. It used to be that parents borrowed money to make life better for their children; now, they are borrowing from their kids to make life better for themselves. This has to end.

Responding to the popular uprising for fiscal discipline, President Obama did something unheard of for a Democratic president: He put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on the table. He offered Republicans a "grand bargain" that came mostly their way: 80% spending cuts in exchange for 20% in new tax revenues. Moreover, two-thirds of those new revenues -- $800 billion -- would have come not from tax increases but tax reform and the creation of a flatter, fairer system.

When someone offers you a deal like that, you grab it -- and I suspect House Speaker John Boehner would have done so. But he had 87 revolutionaries in the House telling him not to compromise. The difficulty he is having trying to pass a short-term deal shows how difficult it would have been for him to sell a grand bargain to his caucus.

And even if the speaker had agreed to such a deal, Obama does not have enough support in his own party to pass the grand bargain he put on the table. He would have faced a gargantuan challenge selling that 80-20 compromise to Democrats on Capitol Hill, whose centrist ranks have also been thinned considerably.

Where does that leave us as August 2 approaches? Obama has said he will not sign a short-term deal, but Republicans believe that with default looming, the president has to blink. They may be right.

We will likely get a short-term solution and revisit this debate in four to six months' time -- in all likelihood with similar results. A long-term solution to our national debt will continue to elude us unless and until both sides recognize their moral imperative to come together and address this crisis.

Republicans and Democrats are equally responsible for racking up this debt. And they share equal responsibility for solving it. Instead of blaming each other and demanding capitulation, both sides must move back to the center -- back toward consensus, and, yes, compromise.

William Frenzel served as a U.S. representative from Minnesota from 1971 to 1991 and was the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. He is co-chairman of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and is a guest scholar in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

After several weeks of increasing pessimism over the real possibility of a federal default, it appeared for a time Thursday that there were grounds for optimism, as the House seemed poised to vote on John Boehner's proposal to raise the debt ceiling. Any solution that avoided its expiration has become the best choice, and that seemed possible.

Former Rep. William Frenzel
Former Rep. William Frenzel

Alas, the vote was delayed as Boehner worked to round up conservatives, but his bill may yet squeak through the House soon. The Reid bill, its Senate counterpart, seems likely to do the same in the Senate. And if this comes to pass, because the bills appear to be similar but not nearly identical, a House/Senate conference committee should be able to reconcile the two pieces of legislation swiftly.

Passing the reconciled bill will still be a chore in the House, but the enormity of default seems to have dawned on at least some of the previously recalcitrant junior members of the House. Slowly, but inevitably, House members are beginning to understand the havoc and disruption it would wreak on all Americans.

The next miracle will be to put enough enforcement into a final bill to make it all worthwhile. Like all compromises, this one will be weaker than budget hawks would like. Two essentials for its success are (1) strong enforcement: triggers that make automatic changes if targets are not met and (2) a promise of good future behavior: a special committee that outlines specific budget cuts, with a guaranteed up-down Congressional vote on its recommendations.

Obama's options - if there is no deal

A debt ceiling bill is still a long way from home, but hopefully at least a temporary end to the game of chicken is in sight. The "Grand Bargain" is deferred but hopefully not abandoned.

There is hope that Congress will act responsibly and bring the nation back from the brink of economic chaos.

Scott Lilly is a former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

With each passing day, our nation moves closer to having too little money in the treasury to pay our bills. Economists and business leaders warn of the impending irreparable damage to the dollar, to credit markets, household finances and the good faith and credit of the world's largest economy, but there is seemingly little awareness that much of the damage has already been done. Around the world, the nation seen only a few years ago as possessing remarkable capabilities relative to those of all other nations is now viewed as a dysfunctional society.

Scott Lilly
Scott Lilly

What went wrong?

I think the best answer is that reasonable people can have two very different interpretations of the "message" sent by the voters in the 2010 congressional elections.

One is that the American people have had it with big government, Washington is out of touch, and citizens want to keep more of their tax dollars in their own wallets even if that means massive cuts in federal programs. In the last elections, the Republican Party certainly campaigned on that platform. No one should be surprised that they are pushing it as far as they can.


But there is another perspective, supported by a huge amount of polling data and almost any historical analysis of American voting behavior over the past several decades. Because many Americans believe that George Wallace's famous statement that "There's not a dime's worth of difference between the Republicans and Democrats" continues to be true, they see one party as a safety valve against the other and happily replace one with the other at election time, regardless of party platform or campaign promises. They are contemptuous of Washington and anyone who served as representative in that city for more than a few months. They also intensely dislike some federal programs, such as foreign assistance and price supports for agriculture.

Unfortunately, the programs they dislike make up a tiny fraction of total public spending. The programs where you find the big money are extremely popular. Medicare wins voter approval by better than two-to-one margins, garnering support from a majority of Republicans and nearly half of all tea party members. Solid majorities support Social Security, Medicaid and a broad range of federal activities ranging from highway construction to scientific research, aid to schools and care for our veterans.

So the question in Washington is, which of these two interpretations is correct? Were voters sending a message for Washington to become more moderate and back away from an activist agenda by the Obama administration, or did they want a wholesale overhaul of government -- stripping away major pieces of the New Deal and Great Society?

Reasonable people could arrive at different conclusions to that question, but reasonable people could also agree that their responsibility to our country was to pay the bills and make the system work. In divided government, responsible parties split the difference. That is what the voters intended when they elected a divided government. The problem is that Washington seems a little shorthanded on reasonable people these days.

If the Republican party -- the majority in the House -- is incapable of taking a position from which it can negotiate a compromise, then moderate elements of the two parties -- that is, those that recognize that a great nation pays its bills -- must protect the republic. There is a deal here, and negotiators must break ranks if they are to act in the interest of the nation.

As for that considerable portion of the electorate who does not wish to listen to campaign speeches or read party platforms and continues to believe there is not a "dime's difference" in the policies that will be pursued by the candidates they vote for, smell the coffee. You get what you vote for, and right now, you are getting it in spades.

The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

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