WASHINGTON » Theirs is an improbable buddy act that is making for unlikely entertainment from campuses to corporations, on a most serious subject: the federal debt. The proof of their appeal: Some business groups pay them $40,000 each per appearance. Really. To discuss budgets and baselines.
Ladies and gentlemen, coming soon to your city or town (if they have not been there already, and maybe even if they have) is the latest odd couple of politics: the 67-year-old Democratic straight man, Erskine B. Bowles of Charlotte, N.C., and his corny 81-year-old, 6-foot-7 Republican sidekick, Alan K. Simpson, of Cody, Wyo.
Since the perceived failure two years ago next week of the bipartisan fiscal commission they led for President Barack Obama, they have been on the road, sometimes solo but often together, perfecting a sort of off-Broadway show that has kept their panel’s recommendations alive, and made them a little money, as well.
That so many people from Bellevue, Wash., to Sanibel Island, Fla., and from Waterville, Maine, to Dana Point, Calif., talk about "Simpson-Bowles" (or "Bowles-Simpson") as if it is shorthand for the solution to the nation’s fiscal woes — even though few know its devilish details on tax increases and spending cuts — is testament to the men’s indefatigable efforts.
And so is the fact, not unrelated, that both the men and their plan could still play a role as Obama and congressional leaders negotiate to avert a looming fiscal crisis in January. On Tuesday, Bowles and corporate executives he helped recruit to a "Fix the Debt" campaign met privately at the White House with six senior administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.
The report "could have just been put into the dust bin," said David M. Cote, chief executive of Honeywell and a panel member. "Instead, it’s become the basis for all of this discussion."
He jokes that Bowles has achieved a status like the rock stars Sting or Bono: "He is known by one name — everybody just calls him ‘Erskine’ now."
Such quirky celebrity is clear evidence that there are second acts in politics.
Simpson, a former Senate Republican leader who retired in 1997 after three terms, and Bowles, an investor, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and a failed Senate candidate, have created a new model for the afterlife of capital commissions. Instead of playing the usual insiders’ game — in which big-name commissioners report to the Washington big shots, only to see their work buried on a shelf — these two have gone outside the Beltway to maintain pressure for action.
The Washington Speakers Bureau, a stable of politicians and pundits for hire, provided added inducement. It sought to re-sign Simpson, who had been on contract after leaving the Senate, after the commission reported in December 2010. He, like Bowles, had been flying weekly to Washington without compensation; Simpson said he had spent about $25,000 of his own money to upgrade from government-rate coach seating to premium-class seats able to fit his frame. He contacted his pal.
"I said: ‘Erskine, would you want to do any of this? I know that may not be your bag, but I certainly have still embraced the capitalistic system,"’ Simpson recalled. "He said, ‘Yeah, as long as I do it with you."’
Initially they made up to $32,000 each, Simpson said, then $36,000, and now $40,000. But they often appear without fee, including at colleges and city economic clubs.
The two men have done countless interviews, for newspaper reporters, doctoral students and middle-school report-writers; have sat for rural radio stations and for "60 Minutes"; and have lectured both on campuses and to campuses, as Simpson did by Skype from Wyoming last week to a class here at American University.
They have addressed Rotary Clubs and corporate conventions; in coming days, they will speak at Bank of America and to investment groups in Manhattan.
"Erskine is the numbers guy; I’m the color guy," Simpson said.
The two often mix substance and sarcasm. For instance, in a recent appearance on Bloomberg TV, Simpson turned to Bowles for the correct figure on Social Security’s negative cash flow, then quipped that if lawmakers could not compromise on that issue and others, "You should never be in a legislature and you sure as hell should never get married."
The Simpson-Bowles road show began two years ago, when, after months of deliberations, 11 of the 18 commission members — five Democrats, five Republicans and one independent — backed the chairmen’s plan to reduce annual deficits at least $4 trillion in the first decade with tax increases and cuts in military and social spending.
While the support was greater than expected, it was short of the 14 votes needed to force immediate action in Congress. The executive director, Bruce Reed, now chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, urged the chairmen to soldier on.
"Together we decided, Let’s don’t let this thing die," Bowles said. "Bruce convinced Al and me that the plan we put together could be the gold standard."
They quickly raised money, including from Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire financier of anti-deficit efforts, to keep a small staff. They began working with the bipartisan "Gang of Six" senators (now eight) to write the report into legislation — "the Cialis project," Bowles privately joked, borrowing from the advertising slogan for an erectile dysfunction drug. "When the moment is right, will you be ready?"
In Minneapolis recently, they visited both the newspaper, which then ran a supportive editorial, and business leaders in hopes of influencing Minnesota lawmakers like Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat. They are booked soon at the University of Kentucky in the home state of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.
"It’s an outside game and it’s been very effective," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who was on the commission. "It certainly has been with the business community. And I think a lot of Americans are for it."
Not all, certainly. Many progressives oppose its proposed savings from Social Security and Medicare. Many conservatives resist proposed tax increases and military cuts. Officials in the White House and in Congress grouse that few Simpson-Bowles fans are aware of particulars, like new gasoline taxes and higher capital-gains taxes on inheritances. And critics say the chairmen have oversold the idea, which Republicans have embraced, that Washington can raise revenues by curbing popular tax breaks instead of raising tax rates.
In February, Obama was so irked by criticism that he had rejected Simpson-Bowles that he had Bowles to lunch to explain his long-term strategy for using the $4 trillion framework, if not all the details, to press Republicans to accept tax increases and Democrats to reduce entitlement spending.
Bowles recounted, "He felt that after the election — if he couldn’t get something done before then — he would have a real chance to negotiate with the Congress on a balanced deal."