Deficit commission co-chair Alan Simpson

Former Republican U.S. senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson, co-chair of President Obama’s deficit commission, discusses the debate in DC on Medicare and Social Security and where he thinks AARP fits into the dialogue.

Alan Simpson co-chairs the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which is focused on tackling the U.S. deficit. He's the former Republican U.S. senator from Wyoming and known for being blunt. The Army vet served as the state's assistant attorney general and in its legislature. After retiring from politics, Simpson taught at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and at his alma mater, the University of Wyoming. He's a partner in a law firm, a consultant in a DC government relations firm and serves on numerous boards.


Tavis: Alan Simpson served as co-chair of President Obama’s bipartisan national commission on fiscal responsibility and reform following a long and distinguished career in the U.S. Senate from his home state of Wyoming. He’s also the former chair of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee and joins us tonight from Cody, Wyoming. Senator Simpson, an honor, sir, to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.

Alan Simpson: It’s a great pleasure. It’s a beautiful day out here in Cody, Wyoming. High, blue sky, about 65 degrees, you’d love it.

Tavis: It sounds beautiful. Let me start with the news of the day. I want to get to the deficit reduction commission ideas in a moment, but this week in Washington was supposed to be dedicated to this very serious issue in the Senate, trying to figure out how we move forward and whether or not we raise the debt ceiling, et cetera, et cetera.

We were supposed to see a week of debate on this issue and then we kill and take into custody the body of Osama bin Laden. So the first question is what do you make of the capture and kill, and secondly, how is this going to impact the debate on Washington this week?

Simpson: Well, first of all, they’ll get back to that debate regardless of what’s going on in the world, but once you turn something over to Leon Panetta, I’ve known Leon for over 30 years and when I heard that the president had appointed him to the CIA, I knew what he’d do. He’d take charge, get in there and as the president said in his talk last night, which I thought was very impressive, he said, “I turned it over to Leon Panetta and Leon and I spoke last August, and the tip came up. Since August, Leon and the president and this fine group of military people, the Special Forces, put together what must have been an awesome assault. No casualties on our side and they must have put a lot of guys away.

Those are the guys that can do more people in at night than you and I have ever met.

Tavis: When the president suggested last night, and you said you thought he did a fine job last night, when he suggested last night – not suggested; in fact, said that justice had been done, is that how you see this? Has justice now been done?

Simpson: Oh, sure. You hate to be joyful that somebody is killed, but there is evil in the world. Anybody that tells you that there’s no evil in the world has missed life.

So here’s a guy, a tough, mean cookie who kills not only our people but his own; savage, savage man, a sadistic, satanic kind of a guy, and he’s gone, and I’m tickled to death he’s gone. It’s going to send a real signal through the world which is very simple – you mess with us and we’ll get you.

It reminds me of those old movies we used to go to in Cody, when old Hoppy or Tom Mix or Roy Rogers, we’d say, “That’ll teach them to mess around with those guys.”

Tavis: I wonder, Senator, whether or not you think it was worth it. When I consider the news of Osama bin Laden now being dead, I think of the thousands of American lives that have been lost in this pursuit in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think of the billions, untold billions that we have spent, I think of the fact it took us 10 years to do it past that now-infamous “mission accomplished” banner on the freighter.

Then I think of the fact that at the time that we catch him he’s really no longer running Al Qaeda like he was back in the day anyway. So I ask all that said, was it worth it?

Simpson: I was in the infantry in Germany in peacetime at the end of the army of occupation. We lost hundreds of people every year just in jeep accidents, auto accidents, helicopter accidents.

If you’re in the military you’re subject to death. This has been a tough, tough 10 years, but the thought – we’re not at the point where we’ve almost evened up how many he killed of innocents and how many of our people were lost in the fight to get rid of this guy.

You can’t equate it with was it worth it. The guy’s gone. The head of the snake is cut off. We bumped off a lot of his underlings, and it’s going to make a difference in the world. If everything we do is equated with what are lost except the final result, we’ll never get anywhere.

Was it worth it? He’s gone. I think it was worth it. Was it worth it to lose that many human beings? Tough. That’s a terrible, terrible, hideous thing, but it’s over and it will change things in the world, and I think that’s worth it.

Tavis: Finally here, how long do you think it’s going to be before Al Qaeda responds, if for no other reason to remind us, and to your point, those around the globe, that they ain’t dead?

Simpson: Well, we don’t know, but you’d better be on red alert. We’ll see what’s left of this ragtag outfit and then you’ve got to remember the Taliban, Al Qaeda, they’re all – they hate us, they hate our culture, and it’s never going to end. But this is a really sincere step of you mess around with America, and it may take us 10 years, but we’ll dig into your hole or into your mansion and we’ll get you, and you’ll be gone.

Tavis: Thank you for taking those questions, because I know you came on to talk about the deficit, and we’ll get to that now. Let me start by asking on this particular issue, Senator Simpson, what do you make of the debate in Washington so far, just over the last couple of weeks? In your own words, describe how you view the debate that has been happening up to this point around this issue.

Simpson: Well, I have a bias, and that is that my wonderful co-chair and I, Erskine Bowles, 18 great Americans, six appointed by the president, 12 from the Congress, put together a package that was voted on by 60 percent of the 18 of us – five Dems, five Republicans, one Independent.

Sixty percent will get you anywhere in Washington. That’s the filibuster number. Then you’ve got this gang of six. I said, when the president finished his remarks at George Washington, “Pray for the gang of six – three Democrats, three Republicans.” But I can tell you this – the president’s plan is a good shot. Doesn’t get there, because you don’t do anything to get at Social Security.

We’re not out to cut Social Security. This isn’t the cat food committee. These guys are stupid.

What we’re trying to do is make the thing solvent for 75 years. Unless you want to leave it alone with all the passions from the AARP and the Grey Panthers and everybody else, don’t touch it, that’s a good thing. Don’t touch it, don’t put your hand on that button, the third rail, and when you waddle up to get your check in 2037 it’ll be 22 percent less – 22 percent. How brilliant is that?

And you’ve got to do something with defense. There’s stuff in there that has nothing to do with the credibility or the protection of the United States. Paul Ryan, again, powerful statesman, because he’s digging into where the big bucks are. You have to do something with Medicare, Medicaid, defense and the solvency of Social Security.

The president didn’t get all four of them in there; Ryan didn’t get all four of them in there. There’s one group that did get them all in there, and that’s this commission, with Democrats and Republicans supporting it, and the gang of six I think are going to come somewhere in the middle between the president and Ryan, and it’s all there, and unless you deal with all of it, I can tell you, in the year the guys that hold our paper are going to say, “Hey, we thought you guys had the guts to do something. You didn’t. You just messed around, and we want some money for our paper.”

The bond markets are going to kick and then hang on, and the guy that gets hurt the most, who is it? The little guy that everybody’s always talking about.

Tavis: When you talk about Social Security, what are the American people to believe? Because in this debate about the solvency of Social Security and how long it will be solvent, you can get any number you want to find from any source, because there’s so many axes being grinded on this issue.

I’m not sure I know, as informed as I think I am about these issues hosting this show every night, that I even know what to believe, because you get so many different numbers on the solvency into the future of SSI.

Simpson: Well, you don’t want to listen to the AARP, you want to ignore them. They said they would help us and they never even moved a muscle. They haven’t done a thing. They juice up their members. I said to their top guy, “Is there any of you here patriots or just marketers?”

Now, I’ll tell you, there isn’t a single person that will tell you anything different than this – that Social Security, if you don’t do anything, will pay out 22 percent less in 2037. Even people who hate you are trying to cremate you on Social Security.

Our plan says look, we’ll give the lowest 20 percent in society 125 percent of poverty. Take care of the guy that can’t work anymore, the steel guy, the wage (unintelligible). He can’t retire at 68; he’s got to retire at 62. Change the cost of living (unintelligible).

Hit the top guys a little more than you hit the lower guys, and for God’s sake if you can’t raise the retirement age to 68 by the year 2050, then, you know, don’t – just knock on my box and tell me how it all went.

Tavis: But –

Simpson: We used actuaries; we didn’t use CBO or OMB. We used the actuaries. Stick with the actuaries.

Tavis: But Senator, when you – I hear – it wasn’t just a slight; I hear the punch that you delivered to the chin of the AARP, and yet for those watching this program right now, they regard, I think, AARP as the organization in Washington with the most integrity on representing the concerns of senior citizens. But you’re saying don’t listen to them?

Simpson: That’s just exactly what I’m saying. Now, if somebody tells you that they are the voice of integrity – somebody said well, don’t forget they helped do the pharmacy bill, weren’t they wonderful? Sure they were, because they run the biggest pharmacy in the world.

Let me tell you, I’ve been dealing with them for 35 years. All they do is get people juiced up and their magazine is a dazzler. They are 1.5 percent of every mailing in the United States under a special subsidized permit, and their magazine looks like the Smithsonian.

It’s getting into good stuff now; it’s sex over 50, 60, 70, 80, it’s getting into great stuff. Now, that’s the AARP. They’re a marketing agency. Read their damn magazine. Is there anything in there about the good of America? No. It’s got how to get into Medicare and not have to pay for a chair, how to get this, how to cover insurance, which they get a big cut off of Hartford and all the rest of them.

Come on, let’s all sober up. If everybody’s terrified of the AARP and Grover Norquist of the taxpayers, you know, tax reform guys, you’ll never get anywhere and the guys who get hurt the worst are the little guys. That’s the way this works. The money guys take care of themselves. Always have.

Tavis: What about the notion of there having to be a connection, as many in the GOP are arguing, between deficit reduction and raising the debt ceiling? Is that a quid pro quo? Do those things have to be connected?

Simpson: It isn’t to me but it is to them, because a lot of these new guys say look, I came here to cut the government. Now, you can’t get there – spending cuts alone will not get you there, and tax increases alone will not get you there, and anybody with half a gourd on their shoulders can tell you this.

That’s why the gang of six is so important. They’re going to come in on this basis and they’re going to say you’re going to have to do a little of everything, and if you can’t do that, then, as I say, we’re not Greece, we’re not Ireland, we’re not Spain, but let me tell you, we’re a global society and a global unification, and everything we do is dependent on the world.

The money is fungible, everything, and I’m just saying don’t do anything. Don’t do a thing. Just freeze in place and these guys, these new guys, say I’m not going to vote to extend the debt limit unless you do cut spending, and if they say, well, what do you want, and if they say, waste, fraud and abuse, earmarks, all foreign aid, Nancy Pelosi’s aircraft, Air Force One and all the rest, and congressional pensions, that’ll get you about 6 percent of where we are.

Now, if people can’t begin to grasp that, then Jefferson really was wrong. He said, “Give me newspapers without a government or a government without newspapers,” but what he also said, “But they must be able to receive them and they must be able to read them.”

If the biggest magazines in America are “People” and “Us” and everything else, they’ve never heard of the other stuff, well, hang on tight, pull up your socks (unintelligible) blocks.

Tavis: Mm. So finally here, Senator, I wonder whether or not you are hopeful that anything we’ve talked about tonight, whatever the plan ultimately ends up being, is there going to be a plan? Will anything get done now that we’ve already started to move into the reelection campaign season?

Simpson: Well, I think it’s unfortunate the president has announced his reelection before he got the debt limit out of the way. Everything he does now is tainted. But I’m very optimistic, because I’ll tell you, I was in there for 18 years. I was there. I talked the same way now I did then. I said you’ve got to do something with the AARP, you’ve got to do something with veterans, you’ve got to do something with defense.

It doesn’t have anything to do with being nasty or anti old people and all that stuff. It has to do with common sense. If you can’t do that, then, as I say, the politician will always respond but they only move when they react. They have to respond, they have to react, and only when the crush is on do they then come to something sensible, and the crush ain’t there yet.

People say, “Well, nothing’s happened so far. Why is that?” Because the stock market’s up, the guys who make money are making money, everything is roses, and that ain’t the way it’s going to be when they say, “Give me some money for my paper. We’re tired of you.”

Forty cents of every buck we spend is borrowed. If you’re at the kitchen table and you’re spending a buck and borrow 40 cents, you’ve got to be stupid, and that’s where we are.

Tavis: He’s the co-chair of the president’s deficit commission. Former senator out of Wyoming, Republican Alan Simpson. Chairman Simpson, thank you for your time. Good to have you on this program, and thanks for sharing your insights.

Simpson: Thank you; it was a great pleasure and an honor.

[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 3, 2011 at 4:07 pm