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Dean Baker

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

March 6th, 2012 6:27 AM

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Bowles-Simpson Commission Report

Parents often find it useful to tell their children about nonexistent creatures to instill habits of good behavior. It seems that many political leaders are going the same route. How else can one explain the repeated references to the Bowles-Simpson commission report and its advice to the country on how to reduce the deficit?

The point here is a simple one: there was no Bowles-Simpson commission report. There was no document that commanded the necessary majority of commission members to be adopted as an official report. This should be an easy one that even Washington elites can understand.

The Bowles-Simpson commission, formally known as the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, was a presidential commission created in February of 2010. The two co-chairs were Morgan Stanley Director Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson.

Under the rules established by President Obama, the commission was supposed to issue a report by December 1, 2010. To be adopted, a report had to have the support of 14 of the 18 commission members. There was no report that had the 14 votes needed to be approved.

The document that is referred to as the commission report is in fact a report of the co-chairs, Bowles and Simpson. This document was put to a vote of commission members on December 3 (two days after the official deadline) and received the support of 11 of the 18 members, not the 14 needed to be approved.

Ever since this vote, supporters of the co-chairs' proposal have referred to the report as being the commission report, as though it actually had been approved. For example, last week, The New York Times ran a major political piece on the fate of the Bowles-Simpson commission report. Only near the end did the piece mention in passing that the report actually did not have the votes needed to be approved by the commission. There is probably not a day that goes by without some similar misrepresentation of the co-chairs' report by a news outlet or politician.

The notion that it takes more than a majority in some bodies to win approval should not be hard for our political leadership to understand. It takes 60 votes to get a measure through a Senate filibuster. There are all sorts of measures that were blocked in the Senate with votes of 56 to 44 or 58 to 42 in favor. Similarly, most jury verdicts must be unanimous. Juries do not convict people with votes of 10 to 2 or even 11 to 1. It's got to be 12 to 0.

The same people who refer to the Bowles-Simpson commission report have no problem recognizing that a bill does not pass the Senate unless it gets by a filibuster or that a jury divided 10 to 2 or 11 to 1 has not reached a verdict. Yet, they insist on attributing the report of the co-chairs to the commission as a whole.

Presumably, this reflects the fact that they can't contain their enthusiasm for the report. After all, the report contains many of the themes that the Washington punditry has been pushing for decades. It calls for substantial cuts to both Social Security and Medicare. This position is hugely unpopular with people across the political spectrum as both liberals and conservatives recognize the importance of these programs to their own economic security and to the vast majority of people in the country.

However, the Washington elite is comprised of people who do not need these benefits. For them, money that is paid out in Social Security and Medicare benefits is money that could have been in the pockets of the wealthy.

The co-chairs report has other ways to put money into the pockets of the wealthy even more directly. It calls for cutting the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. While this rate reduction is supposed to be offset by the elimination of loopholes, leaving it revenue neutral, few would bet that this sort of "reform" would actually turn out that way.

Similarly, Bowles and Simpson want to reduce individual tax rates on the wealthy, again to be offset by reductions in loopholes. Not many people would bet that the 1 Percent would suffer in that deal either.

In short, the report of the co-chairs is an outline for redistributing even more income upward. For this reason, it is not likely to get much support from the public if considered on its merits. Presumably, this is why the elites keep claiming the existence of a Bowles-Simpson commission report. They are hoping that they can force the public to give this document way more respect than it deserves.

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