Alan Simpson is no stranger to the political wars in Washington. A Republican senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997, he was known for having one of the sharpest minds—and tongues—in the U.S. Capitol. Simpson became an expert in manipulating the Senate's arcane parliamentary rules to frustrate the plans of Democratic colleagues. Yet he is anything but a doctrinaire Republican. He supports abortion rights and gay rights, and can be as skeptical of reflexive tax cuts as he is of tax hikes. When Barack Obama announced a presidential commission to find ways to bring down the federal debt, he asked Simpson to help lead the effort. Some conservative activists are now questioning his loyalty to the party. Simpson is happy to have that fight. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Weston Kosova about the commission, and the sorry state of our politics.
Over the years, we've seen many presidential commissions come and go. Do you think this one can accomplish something?
I haven't any idea. But if that's the outlook we have, then this country is just going to sink into the swamp, so it doesn't make a rat's fanny's worth of difference what you do. Folks can say all the cynical stuff they want, but commissions do work. A lot of them don't, but a lot of them do. If people of good will get on them, they work.
In the Senate, you were known as a guy with pointy elbows. But they used to say then that members left the battle in the committee room and went out for a drink. Now the fight seems much more personal. What's changed?
No one forgives anyone for anything anymore. People get angry just for disagreeing with them. But remember the old AA phrase: if you can't forgive a person, it's like letting them live in your head rent-free. Look at what happens at the State of the Union address. There is a lot of whooping and jumping up and pointing. I'm seeing all this and thinking, you know, if they'd just look up, there's a crazy word engraved right there in the wood below the dais where the speaker sits. They ought to take a look at it. It says TOLERANCE. I wonder sometimes what's happened to simple tolerance.
What has happened to tolerance?
It isn't just Congress—Congress is a microcosm of America. You have guys jumping out of the stands at baseball games kicking the crap out of the players. You have hockey players bashing each other. You have city-council and school-board meetings that are just chaos ... It isn't all in Washington, I'll tell you that.
You're a conservative Republican, coming back to Washington to help out with this commission, and you wind up getting attacked by Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives for supposedly cozying up with Democrats. What is with that?
Well, that's how they make their money. I never considered Rush-babe to be anything more than an entertainer. He gets people all riled up all day long, get them filled up with gas, ulcers, heartburn, B.O., and fear. Hell, that's pretty good. You really are an entertainer if you can get that done!
It seems like distortion, on both sides, is standard practice now in Washington.
And it's all BS. I don't have to take that nonsense. Look at my record. No one can say I want higher taxes. You're entitled to be called a fool, idiot, bonehead, slob, screwball. But an attack unanswered is an attack believed. I never lost an election because even though I was called everything, I never let them distort who I was. It's the same with this tax thing—I'm going to shove it right up their nostrils. Try this: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will use up all the taxes—revenue—the government takes in this year. And to do the rest of governing we'll have to borrow, including for massive things like defense, homeland security, education. Those will be paid for by shaking a tin cup in front of the world. And China will probably be throwing more chips in the tin cup than any other country, just waiting patiently for us to expire under the debt. The people who distort the commission and try to scare people into doing nothing, let's say they win the day, and we don't do anything to try to bring down this debt. Well, great. They've got grandchildren, too, and in 40 years they'll be sucking canal water and picking grit with the chickens.
Do you think that the extensive use of the filibuster in the Senate is part of the reason things aren't working?
No, I don't. The filibuster will be there long after I've been thrown in the hole, because it's like a big old hobnail-boot ass-kicking machine. Right now the boots are kicking the Democrats around, but in 10 years it will be the other way and the Republicans will be getting kicked. It is for the protection of the minority, and that's what the Senate does. It forces centrists to come in and save the day.
So you think it is a good thing even though it is messy and inefficient?
Oh, yeah, the filibuster is terrible, unless you're using it on the other side and watching them standing there with tears streaming down their cheeks.