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Former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson, co-chairs of President Obama’s ill-fated fiscal commission, have a new proposal for a “grand bargain” to reduce the budget deficit. Their newest idea is to raise less revenue than they suggested in their original proposal and rely more on cuts in public services and public investments. They have absolutely no policy rationale for this whatsoever, but state quite explicitly that they are proposing a new plan to adjust for the political positions of President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

This might come as a surprise to the many observers of Bowles and Simpson, including many of their admirers in Congress, who believed the original Bowles-Simpson plan was based on policy rationales developed by technocrats who weren’t weighed down by the political baggage that hinders our elected officials.

The original Bowles-Simpson plan, approved by a majority of the commission members in 2010 but not by the super-majority that was needed under its rules to refer it to Congress, would have raised $2.6 trillion in revenue over a decade to reduce the deficit. It also would have cut spending by $2.9 trillion to reduce the deficit.

The new Bowles-Simpson plan would raise just $1.2 trillion to reduce the deficit, including revenue saved in the time that has passed between the two plans. (This includes roughly half a trillion dollars saved in the New Year’s deal from allowing tax cuts for the rich to expire plus additional revenue that Congress would need to raise.)












In a Washington Post interview, Erskine Bowles reminded the reporter that President Obama called for raising just $1.4 trillion in new revenue during debates over the fiscal cliff, and then explained, “being far out front of the president on revenues wasn’t something I wanted to do again.”

This all begs a question: If politicians feel they need leadership from an unelected panel (like the President’s Commission or the “super committee”) to address the budget in a technical way, but the technocrats leading those panels are simply finding the middle-ground between the positions of the politicians, then who exactly is leading? 

Background: The Misunderstood (Original) Bowles-Simpson Plan

The original Bowles-Simpson plan was often said to achieve one-third of its deficit-reduction from revenue increases, mostly from a tax reform that would raise $80 billion in 2015 alone and $180 billion in 2020 alone.

But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, the original Bowles-Simpson plan raises much more revenue if you hold it to the same accounting standards used for most budget plans in Washington today — including savings from allowing tax cuts for the rich to expire and measuring revenue impacts over a full decade. By this standard, the original Bowles-Simpson plan raises about $2.6 trillion in new revenue and achieves almost half of its deficit-reduction goal through new revenue rather than spending cuts.

You might think that achieving half of a given deficit-reduction goal through spending cuts and another half through revenue increases is a centrist position. But with the President continuously compromising in his efforts woo Congressional Republicans to make a deal, and the latter refusing any increase in revenue at all, Bowles and Simpson now perceive the “middle-ground” to be somewhere entirely different.

None of this is to say that the original Bowles-Simpson plan was great policy. It would have (by some mechanism that was never entirely clear) capped revenue at 21 percent of GDP, even though government spending had reached 22 percent of GDP even back in the Reagan years.

The President, meanwhile, is calling for one-half of the remaining deficit reduction to come from increased revenues — and that’s not enough. When you add up all the deficit reduction that has occurred since Bowles and Simpson first failed in their attempt to bring Washington together, and the remaining deficit reduction Obama proposes, only about a third of it would take the form of increased revenue. The rest would come from spending cuts. That’s not balanced at all.

Front Page Photo of Barack Obama meeting with Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles via Cal Almond Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0