Fiscal civil war needs Honest Al
If Lincoln does not win film's triple crown on Academy Awards night - best film, best actor, best director - I will be surprised, for it is a brilliant combination of a great subject in the hands of the best actor of his generation, Daniel Day-Lewis, and one of the most successful filmmakers in history, Steven Spielberg, operating at their peak.
The political lessons depicted in Lincoln reminded me that, 148 years after Abraham Lincoln's death, there is another prominent American Republican who is craggy, earthy, honest and commands respect from both Democrats and Republicans, who offers a strikingly pithy summary of Washington's fiscal civil war that is damaging the world's largest economy.
The US President, Barack Obama, called this man when he despaired of working with the Republicans. He asked him to co-chair a presidential commission to draft a bipartisan roadmap to ''fiscal sustainability over the long run''. The commission duly delivered its report on December 1, 2010. It is still the best roadmap Washington has. But it is the road not taken.
The craggy Republican who co-chaired the commission was Alan Simpson. You've probably never heard of him. I'd never heard of him until I encountered him, larger than life, hosting a seminar at Harvard. Within five minutes, he had everyone in the room engaged. He was the most entertaining politician I had ever encountered and he was refreshingly frank.
After I started paying attention to Senator Simpson when I was a Washington correspondent, I discovered that he was regarded as the most homespun wit in Congress and one of the most respected people there. It was telling that a Democratic president would bring him back to Washington to tackle a national problem.
Recently on national television, Simpson was asked about the inability of the Democrats and Republicans to come to terms with debt and deficit. He said of Congress, on both sides: ''Quit the phoniness, quit the crap, quit the hypocrisy, quit embarrassing America!''
Simpson grew up in Cody, Wyoming, where he still lives in a modest home with a sign on the letterbox saying ''The Simpsons''. I know this because I once made a pilgrimage there.
For 18 years, from 1979 to 1997, he was a member of the Senate then was called out of retirement by Obama in 2010 to co-chair the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, better known as Simpson-Bowles, after Simpson and his co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff to former president Bill Clinton.
The commission detailed $US4.1 trillion in spending cuts and interest savings between last year and 2020. The spending cuts were never implemented and Simpson, as animated and pungent as ever at 81, was asked during his recent interview what he thought about the structural impasse in Washington.
''It is madness,'' he said. ''This game is going to be played for months on end. How far can you go with this game of chicken? They [the Congress and US government] owed $16.4 trillion and now they've just added another $4 trillion.
''They won't get real because they are terrified of the AARP [American Association of Retired Persons, with 40 million members]. They are terrified of Grover Norquist [the president of Americans For Tax Reform, a libertarian lobby group] and every interest group in America, the realtors, the insurance companies, everybody out there saying 'you do that and we're going to put an opponent in a primary and take you out, Democrat or Republican'.
''They are terrified of the special interest groups, all of them. The vampires are out and they don't like to have the blood sucked out of them.''
What would he do?
''You just say: 'Look, the people of America aren't dumb. They are smarter than their politicians, they always have been. When Congress has an approval rating of 9 per cent then you know the people have got it all figured out - you've got to cut spending','' he said.
''So how do you do that? Identify it! That's what our commission did. We hit everybody. And we got a vote of five Democrats and five Republicans, guys from all sides of the spectrum saying 'here are your specific cuts'.''
The commission's report was supported by 10 of its 18 congressional members, five Democrats and five Republicans, but this fell short of the 14 votes Obama had set as the majority needed to submit the report to Congress as official policy. So its recommendations lapsed.
The debt and deficit have since jumped. Asked about the implications of $22 trillion in federal government debt, equivalent to more than 100 per cent of gross national product, Simpson said: ''Let me tell you what will happen. There's a thing out there called the markets. Markets are a nebulous thing but they are the people who loaned us money. And they are going to say: 'You are addicted to debt. You're also totally dysfunctional as a government. You've proved that. So interest rates will have to go up'.
''Interest rates will kick up. Inflation will kick up. And the guy that gets screwed is the little guy and the middle class that everyone talks about all day. What hypocrisy! In 10 years, we'll be paying $1 trillion a year in interest. A trillion that will not go to education, won't help our kids, or healthcare. It will help the countries that loaned us the money.
''The stock market is rolling along because they believe that no government could be as stupid as to go where these guys are headed. But they could. Oh yeah, they could.
''What fakery! What disgusting fakery! Give up the [partisan] hate. Hatred corrodes the container its carried in. Give up the pettiness. Go see the movie Lincoln.''
A very good idea. And a very pithy account of what ails Washington from Honest Al.