"I think the sequester is really stupid," says former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles. Without a deal to reduce the federal deficit by March 1, Congress will enact a series of across-the-board budget cuts.
Bowles is speaking tonight at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia about the American fiscal crisis — and the hards choices that must be made to get America's fiscal house in order. He spoke with Dave Heller on NewsWorks Tonight.
Bowles says no business or not-for-profit organization would balance the books by making cuts across the board.
"You try to go in there and make your cuts in a very surgical manner where you have the least adverse effect on productivity," he said.
Worse, he said, the sequester would cut areas where the government ought to be investing — education, infrastructure, research — and leave intact entitlement programs that are growing at a faster rate than the economy.
Bowles served under President Clinton, when "fiscal cliff" and "sequestration" were not household terms. And even though Washington politics was just as partisan and rancorous always, he says he was able to reach a result with the Republican-dominated Congress in 1997 that he could be proud of.
Progress has been slower this time around. In 2010, when Bowles was paired with Republican Alan Simpson to lead a committee to make U.S. budget recommendations, their bipartisan "grand bargain" was rejected. Instead it was used as a starting point for negotiations with the Republicans.
The president was under pressure from the left to resist spending cuts, and the right threatened to walk away from any plan that included tax increases, said Bowles. He hints that a second attempt may have a better chance now that Obama isn't running for re-election.
That second attempt, based on the agreement that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were negotiating at the end of 2012, recommends a $2.4 trillion deficit reduction. He says one-quarter of the cuts would come from reforming the U.S. tax code, another quarter from reducing the rate of growth of health care spending, another quarter from reducing mandatory and discretionary domestic spending, and the remainder from revisions to government programs.
None of us wants cuts to the government spending that benefit us, said Bowles, but "the problems are real, the solutions are painful, and there's just no easy way out."
Yet for all the political brinksmanship, Bowles remains optimistic. The economics are clear, he says, but the politics is really tough. "We've got to get people to put this ultra-partisanship aside and make the decision that we're going to pull together rather than pull apart and do what's right for the country."