Rivlin: Time Is Running Out to Repair Economy

Former OMB director laments lost opportunities, but Ryan-Wyden shows that bipartisanship has a pulse

President Obama, right, with Erskine Bowles, far left, and Alan Simpson. One critic faults Obama for not taking up the economic policies the two proposed. (Photo: AP) President Obama, right, with Erskine Bowles, far left, and Alan Simpson. One critic faults Obama for not taking up the economic policies the two proposed. (Photo: AP)

This presidential race is sure to draw sharp divisions on budgetary questions in 2012, but prominent policymakers are hoping a flickering of bipartisanship may keep alight the flame of cross-party cooperation long enough to stave off national financial ruin.

In a Brookings Institution blogpost, former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin laments the missed opportunities of the past year, the unlikelihood of consensus in the current election year and the narrow window of time to reach compromise in 2013.

“Whatever happens in the 2012 election, big decisions on taxes and entitlements will still require bipartisan compromise,” writes Rivlin, who co-chaired with Pete Domenici the Debt Reduction Task Force sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “A re-elected President [Barack] Obama or a new president, working with a new Congress may be able to forge a solution early in 2013, but time is running out. A punishing market reaction to American political dysfunction could turn the missed opportunities of 2011 into prolonged economic failure.”

In her blogpost, Rivlin, who also served on Obama’s bipartisan commission chaired by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, criticizes the president for failing to champion either commission’s recommendations after they reported on schedule and substantially agreed with each other; she also condemns Republican “intransigence.”

Both commissions proposed slowing entitlement growth, capping discretionary spending and lowering rates on individual and corporate income taxes, while broadening their bases to increase revenue. Yet the president, she writes, “made the tactical error of focusing solely on job creation, which made his jobs bill a partisan Democratic proposal instead of an element in a bipartisan plan for growth and deficit reduction. The Republicans, she adds, “were willing to risk closing the government and defaulting on the nation’s debt in their zeal to shrink the public sector.”

Rivlin’s downbeat lament is just one of many voices of authority urgently seeking to maintain bipartisan momentum amid a divisive year of campaigning. Her deficit cutting commission colleagues Alan Simpson (former Republican senator of Wyoming) and Erskine Bowles (former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton), quoted in The Wall Street Journal, offered the hope that looming tax expirations will bring about needed policy compromises:

"We face the expiration of the 2001/2003 tax cuts, automatic cuts in defense and domestic spending on Jan. 1, 2013, and the likely need for another increase in the debt limit," they are quoted as saying. "The need to deal with those issues–

combined with the public reaction to the debt-limit fiasco and the sad failure of the supercommittee, and the growing support among members of Congress in both parties to craft a comprehensive fiscal plan along the lines of our proposal–could well lead to an agreement on a bold, smart, bipartisan plan to put our nation on an honest, sensible, sustainable fiscal course."

Beyond the realm of eminent elder statesmen and their political prayers, there are some inklings of bipartisanship among those who introduce and legislation. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bold proposal for market-based reform of Medicare. The plan has been variously praised and condemned but the fact that they introduced a policy matter when most are consumed with political matters–and did so on a bipartisan basis–is noteworthy.

Also making news, a small bipartisan group of lawmakers, numbering 14 at present, are holding breakfast meetings and forging ties that have already led to joint legislation carrying more weight than National Apple Pie Day. The group, for example, has sponsored a bill that would enable U.S. companies to repatriate overseas profits at a lower tax rate if those funds are used to invest in the U.S. economy.

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