Last week I interviewed a man whom the Weekly World News reported in 1994 was a space alien. (Neither he nor his 11 other colleagues so identified denied it; "I'm amazed that it's taken you so long to find out," one quipped at the time.)
He's former Sen. Alan Simpson, who served as U.S. senator from Wyoming from 1979 until 1997 and was the Republican whip from 1985 to 1995. Two weeks ago, President Obama named him cochair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. For the record, Simpson did not deny being an alien when I spoke to him. And these days, the world he comes from, where Democrats and the GOP tried to accomplish more than political point-scoring, can seem far, far away.
He recalled being surprised at how divisive things had become even in his last years in office. "I dropped by a [Republican] caucus once," Simpson remembers, "and all they were doing was trying to figure out how to diddle Bill Clinton. There wasn't any discussion about their own platform, just how to craft a bill that would trap him. I said, 'Gee, what a waste of time.' They said, 'But you don't understand—we could bring him down!' I said, 'But how about the country? Anybody here for the country?' Well, that irritated the hell out of all of them."
Compared with Washington these days, Simpson does sound as if he's from another galaxy, one in which Democrats and Republicans met regularly in working groups, cosponsored legislation, even ate lunch together. The system he knew is broken, the changes on Capitol Hill "dramatic." There's an attitude of "If Obama's for it, then we're agin' it," he says, pointing to the recent vote on a bipartisan congressional commission on the deficit that would have required a blueprint for reform after the November elections and a vote before the next session. That bill had 60 supporters, Simpson says, but failed when some of its cosponsors voted against it "just so they could stick one in Obama's ear."
So in the midst of all the ugliness, what possessed him to agree to cochair the commission (which Obama created by executive order) with former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles? "There are six little people running in and out of my house, called grandchildren, who are absolutely just little lambs led to slaughter," he says. "They are totally uncomprehending. They have no idea that when they reach 60—under the present system—they'll be picking grit with the chickens."
The president charged this commission with recommending changes for balancing the federal budget by 2015 and publishing its report by the end of this year. Simpson says everything is on the table. He has spoken with House Minority Leader John Boehner and with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (both of whom he praises), but he sees McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as two prizefighters more interested in scoring points than anything else. "But it's not a boxing match," he points out. "It's our country." Most Americans are tired of the boxing.
The two grandfathers (between them, Bowles and Simpson have 13 grandkids) are doing this not only to avert a fiscal disaster for the next generation but to educate the current one. "When we're through, the American people will know a hell of a lot more than they know now," he told me. He's right: Polls show Americans are ill informed when it comes to the deficit, with wildly contradictory views about how to fix it. A New York Times/CBS News poll last summer showed that 56 percent of respondents were not willing to pay more in taxes to reduce the deficit, and nearly as many said they were not willing for the government to provide fewer services. When it came to solutions, a majority of Democrats did not want services cut, and an even bigger majority of Republicans did not want to pay higher taxes. Independents split right down the middle on both questions. There clearly is no consensus, and I think it's because most people find it all overwhelming.
Simpson dismisses the idea that the budget problem can be fixed by reforming earmarks, cutting foreign aid, and going after waste, fraud, and abuse. At less than 2 percent of the federal budget, he says, those three areas amount to a "sparrow fart." He adds that what needs to be done will be much more daunting and difficult than anyone is willing to say. He's hoping that "these two old cats" will help Americans face facts.
As soon-to-be-former head of the University of North Carolina, Bowles will do what he's best at—teaching—and Simpson will rely on his talent for handling "the color," he told me with a chuckle. "Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life. My mother taught me that," he said. Having Simpson do a wry color commentary on deficit reduction could be just what the country needs. Whom would you rather listen to on the debt: Alan Simpson or Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell?
The former legislator says he has no expectations of success. He knows he'll be savaged by the right, but he doesn't seem to care. "Hatred corrodes the container it's carried in," he remarks, commiserating about Capitol Hill's poisonous atmosphere. "It's the extremists on both sides that are causing America's great pain, because most Americans are centrists. That's why most people are going independent. They can't stand either party because it's just babble."
The next year of Al Simpson's life won't be easy. But he recalls his mother's advice: "If you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't, then do." After a moment, he adds, "I live by those words."
Maybe Alan Simpson really isn't from outer space.
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