Perhaps unsurprisingly, budget-cruncher Erskine Bowles likes to present his ideas as numbered line items.
As in, in the case of the parameters around which he helped build a federal budget proposal:
1.) Don’t do something overtly stupid and disrupt the economy.
2.) Don’t hurt the truly disadvantaged with cuts to SSI or food stamps.
3.) Do deal with rising health care costs … etc.
The indefatigable investor-turned-head of the Small Business Administration, then deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, turned university president, returned to Washington in 2010 at the request of President Barack Obama.
The assignment handed down to him and co-chair and former Senator Al Simpson: to negotiate a budget deal that Democrats and Republicans could agree on.
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known colloquially as the Simpson-Bowles Comission, came up with a well-respected compromise. However, the plan failed to win a supermajority of its 18 members which would get it in front of Congress.
Now, days before the implementation of sequester cuts their plan was created to avoid, Bowles and Simpson are selling their touch choices through dogged legwork and sheer force of personality.
Bowles himself was in Philadelphia on Tuesday, as part of Widener University’s Philadelphia Speakers Series. He addressed an audience at the Kimmel Center.
A wry joke Bowles delivered about his 94-year-old mother: She tells him at length what he’s doing is so great, but then turns around and says, “Don’t you mess with my Medicare.”
Bowles, a Democrat, takes a strong position that current government spending is unsustainable and that the solution lies in large part in the country’s holiest entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
He says federal spending on medical care has far outpaced the rate of inflation. It made up just 10 percent in 1981 and 25 percent today. At the current pace, it will make up a third of the spending by the end of the decade.
“There is no easy way out,” he concluded, with a quotation attributed to the father of nuclear physics, Ernest Rutherford, delivered to his fellow researchers: “We’ve run out of money. Now we have to think.”
WHYY is a media sponsor of the Philadelphia Speakers Series.