Budget Hawks Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

When it comes to taking stands that are bound to anger people, former senator Alan Simpson has little competition. He coined the phrase “greedy geezers” when he was urging Social Security reform in Congress, and now that he’s out of office and crusading for deficit reduction, he’s doubling down on the need to cut entitlements. He’s angering seniors and their Democratic patrons, but he’s also ticking off his own Republican colleagues by insisting that more tax revenue be part of any budget deal. “I’ve found that when you get your skin torn off, it grows back double strength,” he says, shrugging off the fury directed at him. “Anybody that doesn’t take flak isn’t a leader.”

The 80-year-old Simpson is best known these days as the more colorful half of the Simpson-Bowles commission, which a little more than a year ago produced its report to reform the tax code and reduce the deficit. President Obama, who created the commission, praised the report’s balanced approach while doing nothing to advance it. It is widely believed even among Obama’s supporters that the president’s failure to fully embrace Simpson-Bowles was a huge missed opportunity. “He would have been torn to shreds, so he didn’t do it,” says Simpson.

Meanwhile, the nation’s climbing debt is “a stink bomb you can’t romance away,” says the former Wyoming senator, who often travels the country with his commission partner, Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, to build support for their plan. “We say, ‘Pull up a chair, we don’t do bullshit or mush,’ and when we’re finished, we get a standing ovation.” Bowles is a dry, green-eyeshades kind of guy and a perfect complement to Simpson’s folksy persona. Notoriously press-shy, Bowles declined an interview even as he pondered his response to calls that he run for governor in his home state of North Carolina.

Simpson says the “nastiest, foulest letters” he gets are from people over 65—“vicious stuff.” When people call him to bitch about this or that, he tells them to read the report, titled “The Moment of Truth.” “It’s 67 pages in English, won’t take you long, not a lot of charts; everybody has skin in the game, it hits everybody, shared sacrifice—read it. And they do, and they’re quite impressed.” He points out that 11 of the 18 commission members voted for the report (five Republicans, five Democrats, and one independent), a clear majority but short of the 14 needed to force an up-or-down vote in Congress.

The Simpson-Bowles framework raises revenue by getting rid of tax deductions and loopholes. “Over 180 of them have been plastered into the tax code by the sharpest lobbyists representing the wealthiest interests in America,” says Simpson. One of the most popular is the home-mortgage interest deduction, currently capped at $1 million; Simpson-Bowles would take it down to $500,000. It would also increase the retirement age to 68 by 2050.

Obama didn’t make deficit reduction a theme in his State of the Union address, and most analysts think nothing will be accomplished in Congress during an election year. But Bowles is working closely with bipartisan senators of the original Gang of Six who backed Simpson-Bowles. With the addition of two more senators, the group is now the Gang of Eight, and it’s bolstered by a letter of support signed by 50 senators and 140 House members. “We’re putting this baby in legislative language,” exults Simpson. “And if you don’t like it, don’t run back to your district and say, ‘They talked about raising taxes and I saved your butt’ ... Tell us what you’d do, bring us a plan.”

Lawmakers have said to Simpson, “Save us from ourselves,” and while they’re joking, they’re also dead serious, he says. “Nobody has called for sacrifice since World War II.” On that score, someone recently sent him a bumper sticker that reads, “You’ll have to pry my free stuff from my cold, dead hands.” He tossed it, but thought it was funny—in the darkest sort of way.