Former Sen. Alan Simpson, right, and Erskine Bowles meet with the debt reduction super committee on November 1.
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Former Sen. Alan Simpson, right, and Erskine Bowles meet with the debt reduction super committee on November 1.

Story highlights

Former Sen. Alan Simpson: Debt panel faces huge challenge

He says the facts aren't in dispute: U.S. living beyond its means

The nation can't cut, tax or grow its way out of the debt problem, he says

Simpson: It will take a combination of cuts, taxes, and economic growth

Editor’s Note: Alan Simpson, a Republican, is a former senator from Wyoming and co-chaired the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010. Erskine Bowles, a Democrat who co-chaired that commission, was White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

CNN —  

The 12 members of Congress on the deficit reduction committee have my deepest admiration and respect. They face probably the greatest challenge they’ve ever faced or ever will, at least in political life!

When my pal Erskine Bowles and I testified before the committee earlier this month, we did not spend much time going over the specifics of what needs to be done. They all know in their gut what has to be done. They know all of the policy options for dealing with the deficit. And by now they are just as painfully and vividly aware that every single program or policy they look at has an entrenched constituency that will raise a perfect hell if they dare to touch it.

Instead we offered them our full support, and told them that from our experience it can be done. We told them that if they step up and agree to a big, bold and smart plan to truly bring our nation’s debt under control, they will have the true respect and support of the American public.

I loved to take on the ideological extremists on both sides when I was in the Senate and took a helluva lot of grief from the special interests passionately defending the sacred cows I dared to brand. But I never lost an election. That is an important lesson that I shared with the committee members. People admire guts and courage. They may fight you. They may vilify you. But they will admire you.

When Erskine and I go around the country speaking about our nation’s budget, we don’t give them BS or mush. We give them some simple facts: Our nation faces the most predictable economic crisis in history. We borrow $3.56 billion every day. We borrow 36 cents for every buck we spend. You don’t need fancy charts and graphs to show anyone that is a problem.

Wherever we speak, whatever the audience may have thought about our plan beforehand, we get a standing ovation when we’re done. And when people see us as we travel the country we get far more thumbs up than any other digit.

We can’t spending-cut our way out of this, we can’t tax our way out of it, and we can’t grow our way out of it. You need to do all three. Anyone who says with a straight face that we are going to deal with our debt in a serious way without touching revenue, defense spending, Medicaid and Medicare and addressing the solvency of Social Security is either goofy or a radio talk show host.

We spelled out these facts in plain English in our commission report, which we titled, “The Moment of Truth.” To come up with enough savings to bring our debt under control, our solution had more spending cuts and changes to entitlements than Democrats wanted and higher revenue than Republicans wanted. Everyone had to swallow hard and nearly choked on one item or another. None of us thought our plan was perfect. But perfection was not the goal. Getting an agreement on a plan big enough to be equal to the challenge was the goal.

Some people say to us, “It’s easy for you to propose all this tough medicine, you and Erskine have nothing to lose.” Well, that’s true. But other commission members like Sens. Dick Durbin and Tom Coburn had a lot to lose, and they stepped right up to the plate and supported the original commission plan.

When Dick Durbin announced that he was supporting our plan he said he was doing so even though it contained items he “hated like the devil hates holy water” and he knew his vote for it would deeply disappoint many of his friends and allies.

Tom Coburn well knew he would be demonized on taxes by the zealous enforcers of ideological purity like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. But both Tom Coburn and Dick Durbin, and a supermajority of our commission, were willing to give up something they like to protect the country they love.

Our nation simply cannot afford to have our elected leaders fearfully bow and scrape to the likes of Grover Norquist and the AARP. We need real leaders, courageous leaders who will place the national interest ahead of special interests. The members of the super committee as well as congressional leaders and the president must do just that. Pray for ‘em!

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Simpson.