Speaking to an audience of hundreds Friday at Snow King Hotel, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson said the country’s leaders must compromise to govern effectively.
Hosted by a passel of Jackson Hole luminaries including Mayor Mark Barron, Gov. Matt Mead and Wyoming Rep. Keith Gingery, Simpson was characteristically bipartisan in his criticism, but he reserved his most pointed words for programs broadly supported by both parties: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the Department of Defense.
The colorful former politician known for not pulling his punches said President Obama “won this round” in the recent budget showdown that led to the partial shutdown of the federal government.
“If anyone even thought we were going to get rid of the president’s signature piece of legislation, like it or not ... there’s something very strange about that,” he said. “An old cowboy in Cody once said that if your horse drops dead, it’s better to get off. Hopefully they learned the lesson.”
Congress will assuredly repeat the process in February, when the recently passed budget authorization expires, Simpson said.
“They’re going to kick the same can down the road,” he said. “It’ll be tough to watch.”
Much of the debate over the budget centers on minutiae that distracts from issues that neither party wants to touch, he said.
“All the pain you saw in the sequester, all the pain you saw [Oct. 17] and before has nothing to do with two-thirds of the American budget,” he said.
Entitlement spending, defense spending and interest on debt drive the budget, he said, but most budget debate has to do instead with foreign aid, education and “Nancy Pelosi’s airplane,” Simpson said.
The Big Bang Theory says the universe began “800 million years ago,” he said, “and that ain’t even close to a trillion, and we owe 17 of those babies. Someone will say, usually a Republican, ‘Don’t touch that precious defense budget.’ ”
The annual defense budget of the U.S. is $600 billion, he said, but it’s $540 billion for the next 17 largest national defense budgets in the world combined.
The federal budget was last balanced by Erskine Bowles in 1996, Simpson said, when, as President Clinton’s chief of staff, Bowles spent weeks with Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey hammering out numbers acceptable to both parties.
Bowles and Simpson co-chaired Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010, developing a plan for deficit reduction that the administration did not adopt.
The country will survive its dysfunctions, Simpson said, but it will be diminished.
“Something will happen,” he said. “We won’t disappear, but we won’t be No. 1.”
Those to whom the country owes its debt will increasingly use their leverage to better themselves while harming the United States, he said.
“The guy that’ll get screwed is the little guy, because the money guys will always take care of themselves.”
The situation is exacerbated by dishonest politicians, he said.
“The people representing us in Congress ... you see them standing on their hind legs and saying, ‘I know what the problem is,’ and that we can fix it without touching our precious Medicaid, our precious Medicare or our precious defense budget.’ ” Such claims are “terminological inexactitude,” he said, told by a “lying S.O.B.”
The solution is to vote such people out of office, Simpson said, “to use brains instead of emotion, guilt, fear and racism ... to get someone in there who believes in common sense and compromise.”
“Because if you don’t believe in compromise, don’t run for school board, don’t run for city council, don’t run for public office, and for God’s sake don’t get married.”