Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles criticized both parties Thursday for doing "absolutely nothing" to resolve the debt crisis, as he called the failure to strike a significant budget deal "the most disappointing thing in my life."
Bowles, with former Sen. Alan Simpson, headed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan presidential commission on deficit reduction that recommended new tax revenue and deep spending cuts in entitlements and other programs. Those recommendations were basically ignored by both parties, except for an effort to make a few changes "around the edges," Bowles said during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
"It's the most disappointing thing in my life," he noted. "What's going on in Washington? Nothing. Absolutely nothing," he said, blaming both sides.
"They're bouncing from one crisis to another . . . It's nuts. We have an enormous fiscal problem in this country . . . We've got to put our big boy and big girl pants on and go to work," he said.
Bowles repeated the warning laid out in Simpson-Bowles commission report that "the problems are real, the solutions painful, and there's no easy way out." But he said he doesn't believe Republicans or Democrats have offered any serious proposals yet to shrink the gap between spending and revenues.
"I don't think anybody gets a gold star on their head in either party," he said. "We always seem to get up to the brink. We're going to have a major deal and, you know, we back away. You know, that's no way to solve a problem."
Bowles recalled how he spent "months and months locked up in conference rooms" in 1996 with then House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott trying to work out a budget deal as President Bill Clinton's representative.
"Together we worked it out and we came away with a balanced budget that put the country on the right fiscal path," he said. "We can do that again. But we've got to put some of this ultra-partisan politics aside we've got to put some of this intransigence aside, and we've got to decide we're going to pull together for the country."
Bowles said to get a deal that actually stabilizes the debt and puts in on a downward path will require major cuts, including Medicare and other so-called entitlements.
"We've got to do stuff that's real. I mean there's no sense in, you know, just working at the edges," Bowles said, adding: "If we don't slow the rate of growth in healthcare programs, it's going to eat up the entire budget and virtually bankrupt the country."
"It is impossible , impossible, to solve our long-term fiscal problem without making significant cuts in healthcare and without making Social Security sustainably solvent," he said.
To make his point about the seriousness of the debt situation, Bowles explained it this way. "Take, for example, the interest payments we have today. We spend about $230 billion a year now on interest costs alone. Even at these low [rate] levels we spend more on interest today than we spend in the departments of commerce, education, energy, homeland security, interior, justice, and state — combined."
Bowled added that "every dollar we spend today" on the war in Afghanistan, national security, education, and research comes from "borrowed" money.
Despite his frustration, Bowles said he still believes "there's a deal out there" that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on. But he said it would be more difficult today to get it done than in 1996 when Gingrich and Clinton put aside their partisan differences to form a "partnership" that led to a deal.
"You couldn't have had two people that were further apart than Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. Both of them really smart guys, no question about that. But they were willing to put the partisanship aside and do what they felt was right for the country," Bowles said.
Bowles also weighed in on Obama's choice of White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to replace Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary, calling him "terrific" and "a leader in every sense of the word."
"He worked with me side-by-side for several years," Bowles said, recalling their time together during the Clinton administration. "I thought he offered President Clinton terrific advice. He's smart, he's knowledgeable, he works hard, he gets the job done, and done right. . .
"Is he a liberal? You bet. Is he more liberal than I am? You bet," Bowles continued, adding: "But I guarantee you, he's a great soldier. When the president makes a decision, Jack Lew will march forward."
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