Beating the national debt

The decline and fall of pork-barrel politics in the American West, expressed by a cowboy. “The pig is dead, there’s no more bacon to bring home.”

If Will Rogers had been a Republican, he would have sounded an awful lot like retired Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, chairman, along with former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Simpson was in Seattle on Friday to participate in the third annual chairman’s luncheon for the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a joint project of the UW and WSU. The mission is to serve as a neutral policy fixer on issues too hot or vexing for partisans and bureaucrats.

The Simpson-Bowles plan for debt reduction dovetails with the Ruckelshaus Center’s focus on noodling data, delivering the hard truth and then shepherding it home. The shepherding part — colloquially known as politics — is stonewalled by recalcitrant interest groups and timid lawmakers. Washington has its writ small version of commission-making, such as the Washington State Tax Structure Study Committee chaired by William Gates. The 2002 Gates report, which leveled the revenue playing field and called for a (gasp) progressive income tax, was quickly shelved by Gov. Gary Locke. Hard-nosed policy solutions require horse power and political nerve. No backbone, no change.

Simpson tells it like it is. President George W. Bush pushed the national debt from $5 trillion to $11 trillion. Obama pushed it from $11 trillion to $17 trillion. Something’s got to give. Sacred cows like the AARP are rightly skewered for opposing reforms such as ratcheting the age for Social Security retirement from 65 to 68 by 2050. “Wait until 2033, when the Social Security Trust Fund is depleted,” Simpson said. “Folks will be getting 25 percent less of what they receive today.”

Simpson is an equal opportunity cow slayer, lambasting the conservative Club for Growth for its gospel of corporate tax cuts. Unlike his Republican colleague Bill Ruckelshaus, Simpson opposes a carbon tax targeting fossil fuels. For coal-centric Wyoming, a carbon tax would be a “heavy, heavy burden,” Simpson said.

Ruckelshaus and three other former Republican EPA administrators wrote in last week’s New York Times on the need for a climate action plan. Ruckelshaus acknowledges that a carbon tax is a political non-starter, but that energy sectors must be cost competitive and unsubsidized. It makes for a getting-there first step. In the absence of political will for a carbon tax, put the kibosh on billions in energy subsidies, including taxpayer dinero for mining Powder River Basin coal on public lands in Wyoming.

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