Alan Simpson on Feeding Bananas to Congress

Alan Simpson at the annual Cody High Style fashion show in Wyoming in September 2008. Dewey Vanderhoff

First of all, I want to know your reaction to the tax deal that’s before the Congress. It doesn’t have too many elements of deficit reduction.

It’s a great disappointment, a tremendous disappointment, because —what is it, $858 billion in two years added to the deficit? I mean, that just breaks your heart. What the hell do you think we’ve been talking about? Whether you’re for [or against] anything that the commission did, what the hell have we been talking about?

One of the points you’ve made is that when or if financial collapse comes, it’ll happen very quickly, which is why we need to get ready—we can’t wait until it starts happening to reform the system.

The Chinese have already reduced our credit just a shade. I can’t remember if it went from +AA to whatever, but the rating game is different in every country. The point is, if they look at the United States, [they might] say, “Look, everybody has been saying for these last months and years that this country has an unsustainable debt, the deficit is rising, interest payments will be $1 trillion in the year 2020, whatever the figure was, and they have done nothing; they have chickened out; they have failed to address it in any way and therefore, we ain’t sticking our money in there anymore, and we want some of ours out.” And then it will be precipitous. It won’t be six months, might not even be six weeks. It might be six days when they suddenly start the flight. And I know how bankers are: once the flight starts, and the money and the rumors, it’ll be fast and difficult.

Can you imagine this happening within the next year? Five years? Do you have any kind of time frame?

We don’t know the tipping point. But the tipping point will come if you fail to address the long-term problem of debt, deficit, and interest. And we won’t be able to define it, but our creditors sure as hell will.

You said dealing with Congress on this was like feeding a banana to the gorilla in the zoo.

It’s the same thing I’ve done for years, just got my foot right in it. We threw this big banana into the gorilla cage and they’re going to pick it up, play with it, mash it, but they’re gonna eat some of it. They can’t avoid eating some of it because of where they’re headed.

So this is the beginning of the gorillas mashing the banana and it’ll take a while, but that’s how Congress operates.

Mmm, mmm. And it’s an indigestible lump. This is a stink bomb thrown into the garden party, and it ain’t going out. And they can shovel it off, they can bury it, and it will come back to life because the left and the right extremes are frightened to death about it.

When we last spoke, you said you were on a suicide mission. I think you did pretty well: you got 11 out of 18 votes [on the commission].

Well the Senate runs on 60 percent, so we got 60 percent. [There was some] early scrapping, which was: “Who’s the biggest-spending president in the history of the United States?” “Well, George W. Bush, that’s who.” “Well, yeah, but now your guy, he’s outpaced him 3 to 1.” And finally [commission co-chair] Erskine [Bowles] and I and [Honeywell CEO] David Cote said, “Knock it off. I don’t want to listen to any more of this.” So Erskine and I finally decided, at this stage of life, with whatever reputation, ragged or not, or integrity or whatever, we aren’t going to just walk away and do the usual mush. So as we visited with the others one on one, they said, “What are you guys gonna do [without the necessary votes for a tough report]?” We said, “You do anything you want to, but we’re not going to walk away from it and just leave the American people dealing with a bunch of porridge.”

Given the realities of the political process, what’s the rationale for putting together such a giant deal? Wouldn’t it be easier to move things piecemeal, which is how Congress typically operates?

Well, it is. To do a major piece of legislation, it takes about six to eight years. And that’s so everybody in America can get their say, which is critical. That’s what I always tried to do [in Congress]. I said, “Get me the best guy on the other side to testify.” Not so I could study up and embarrass him or her. Just so we’d hear the other side.

Going forward, or even up to this point, how would you evaluate the president’s leadership?

I’ve been called a Republican toady covering the president’s fanny so he can destroy the Republican Party. And Erskine was called a fake Democrat. I think that all of us share a disappointment in the promise versus the production of where he is. I don’t know how, [but] if he could just pull the trigger?.?.?.?Reagan could pull the trigger. George the First could pull the trigger—the one that, you know, doomed him, but he had the guts to say, “Look, I know where I’m going when I get cremated, but it’s for the country.” Clinton could pull the trigger. At some point here it seems to me there’s just such a great tentativeness, and that he loses respect because of the tentativeness. Instead of “ready, aim, fire,” it’s “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim, and nothing.”

Although I did see that five of his six appointees on the deficit commission supported the proposal.

Yeah, it was very pleasing. You know, he’s an inspiration. His speeches are inspirational, but now people are not listening like they were.

In terms of hard choices, you have been critical of seniors and the benefits they get. Where does that come from, or how did you arrive at those thoughts or attitude?

Well, it came when Bob Kerrey and I were working on Social Security, and we said maybe you take 2 of the 6.2 percent [payroll tax] and give the people an opportunity to put that into a private account. Well, Bob and I got our underwear ripped off on that one. The stuff we’re doing doesn’t affect anybody over 70. Nothing. And the AARP, I just discussed it with them. I went to their top people, Erskine and I said, “Are any of you here patriots, or just marketers? Is that what you do, you’re just here to market your stuff and make your money?” And then they say, “Now, Simpson, you’ve always been nasty like this. We know that we do have a problem with Social Security and we’re going to make some modest changes, and we know they need to be made.” I said, “Would it be untoward to share with me what the modest changes are?” And they just sat there like lumps. John Rother [a top AARP official] just smiles, and he smiles a lot because he knows he’s got 38 million people to stick it up your nose. I have never met a soul in this whole exercise that wasn’t getting something from the federal, state, or local government, and hating the government.

Incoming speaker John Boehner cries in public, quite often, which is something we don’t often see, especially among men. It says to me that he’s not somebody we can just put in a box and figure out what he’s going to do. He could be a consequential speaker.

I think there are a lot of people that were in a box when we started [on the debt commission]. [Democratic Rep.] Jan Schakowsky and I don’t agree on things, but finally I get to ranting like I do and she said, “Alan, you’re ranting.” I said, “I know it. Will you be my canary in the coal mine? If you would please, the next time I rant just clear your throat.” And she put out her plan—give her credit—she put a plan out there. I admire people that just don’t sit and knock on stuff.