BOSTON – Sometimes you can see events in Washington more clearly when you get out of town.
Before I came here last weekend to cover the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association, I shared the general Beltway view that the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is an exercise in futility.
After all, it was almost strangled at birth, when a half-dozen Republican senators who had endorsed the idea of a bipartisan panel to tackle the deficit and debt problem reneged and voted against it, only to see President Obama rescue it by executive order.
The odds seemed hopelessly stacked against its finding the needed 14 votes among its 18 members in order to send a package to Congress for the promised up-or-down vote in December.
But then I heard the commission co-chairmen, Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, brief the governors for an hour. I shared the reaction of Mike Beebe, the governor of Arkansas, who said. “I don’t know that I ever heard a gloomier picture painted that created more hope for me.”
Together, Bowles and Simpson laid out a scenario of a growing gap between the demands on government and its available resources that “is like a cancer,” as Bowles put it.
The commission may be a bad joke in Washington, but it was clear that the governors – many struggling already with recession-bred budget crises – take it very seriously.
Like Beebe, they found hope in the fact that, however tough the odds, Simpson and Bowles have created an environment in which serious people are grappling seriously with the biggest domestic challenge facing government.
What I learned from them – and several commission members interviewed back in Washington – is that they have pooled their very disparate talents: Simpson, cloaking his blunt cowboy directness in good humor; Bowles, a walking-computer of a number-cruncher with the patience and tact of a Southern squire.
The trust they have found in each other is increasingly shared among commission members. Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, who is accustomed to the roughhouse tactics of the House, has been welcomed by Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Andrew Stern, the feisty former president of the Service Employees International Union, has found common ground with archconservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma in wanting to scrutinize Pentagon spending. And David Cote, the chairman of Honeywell International, has impressed Alice Rivlin, the brainy Democratic former director of the Office of Management and Budget, with his insistence on action.
Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a co-sponsor of the bill creating the commission and now a member, told me that many of the Capitol Hill commissioners have been meeting almost weekly, searching for the path forward.
Nothing has been negotiated yet, and all kinds of pitfalls loom, but the outlines of possible future agreements are becoming clear.
On nondefense discretionary spending, Obama already has proposed a three-year freeze that could set the pattern for a longer-term compact.
Social Security has been studied so thoroughly that commission members say “there are 34 ways” to balance the books, once the political trade-offs are accepted.
Health care will be the biggest challenge on the spending side, with some Democrats – and apparently the White House – resigned to the fact that the painfully negotiated 2010 law will have to be reopened to strengthen badly needed cost controls, no matter how awful the prospect of resuming that debate.
On revenues, Republican members are “keeping an open mind,” rather than repeating their rote objections to any taxes. Bowles is helping them by suggesting that no taxes increase before 2012, and that ideally, revenues should be raised and spending should be lowered so they balance at no more than 21 percent of the gross domestic product. Also, he suggested that two-thirds to three-quarters of the savings should come from the spending side, not new taxes; that tax expenditures (loophole closing) could make a major contribution, as they did in the 1986 deal under Ronald Reagan; and that no value-added tax should be imposed without cutting current levies.
Before any decisions are made, an election looms, and then a series of votes testing whether a 14-vote consensus can be found. But contrary to what Washington thinks, there is hope.
David Broder writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.