A Grand Bargain on entitlements?

The press is sending signals about Simpson-Bowles. How about explaining it?

To the average person, Nancy Pelosi’s May 20 interview with George Stephanopoulos probably seemed like standard procedure for a Sunday morning talk show—another politician slipping and sliding around the questions. It was more than that.

Stephanopoulos noted that Pelosi had said—a few weeks earlier—that she would vote for the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, l which among other things proposes severe cuts in Social Security benefits, gradually raises the retirement age to 69, and calls for Medicare beneficiaries to pay more for their healthcare. Former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, a fellow Democrat, had then challenged her, in an e-mail to supporters, saying “any Democratic endorsement of benefit cuts capitulates on bedrock progressive values and makes it easier for corporate Democrats to join with corporate Republicans to destroy these programs.”

That was fair game for Stephanopoulos. Did Pelosi believe that? She did not answer yes or no, exactly. Instead, she said, “The framework of Simpson-Bowles was a very important one” because “it assumed the expiration of the high-end tax cuts. It took a harsh look at all of our spending, including our defense.” Stephanopoulos asked if that included Medicare and Social Security. She mumbled something about “our defense spending” and the need for a “proper balance between cuts and revenues that we have to have.”

“What I didn’t like” about Simpson-Bowles, she continued, “was what it said about Social Security. But I said that can be handled separately. Social Security—whatever we do on Social Security—should be returned to Social Security to extend its life.” What that meant to the ordinary viewer was hardly clear.

Pelosi never did directly answer what she thought Simpson-Bowles meant for Social Security and Medicare. She did engage in subtle beltway signaling, substituting buzzwords like “job creation,” “priorities,” and achieving a “balance,” all the while allowing her words to convey that the Dems who mattered were now on board to pass the Simpson-Bowles plan, a blueprint for deficit reduction crafted by a bipartisan commission appointed by the president in early 2010 to devise a plan for the deficit. The commission was headed by former Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Their plan did not receive the fourteen votes from the eighteen-member commission that were necessary for Congress to consider it. But it has since moved to the national agenda anyway.

Back in late 2010, when the commission announced its plan, Pelosi called it “simply unacceptable.” She didn’t like the idea of raising the retirement age either. A few months earlier Pelosi had said that she opposed raising the retirement age and that scaling back Social Security should not be a means of reducing the deficit.

She seemed to have moved somewhat by this past March, when the House voted on a version of the Simpson-Bowles plan. Democrats, including Pelsoi, rejected it. Still, she claimed she and her colleagues were ready to vote for it “until we saw it in print.” “If it were actually Simpson-Bowles, I would have voted for it,” she said at the time.

The Stephanopoulos interview is one of many recent smoke signals that the plan lives again.

For example, last Thursday The NewsHour explored what the European economic crisis might mean for the US. “What are the real options for policy makers?” host Judy Woodruff asked Ken Rogoff, a Harvard economics professor. Rogoff replied, “Well, we could dream they would do something like the Simpson-Bowles proposal, where they’re going to get rid of a lot of tax expenditures and be able to keep rates low, make reforms to Social Security.”

Also on The NewsHour, at the end of that defining week in late March when Pelosi hinted that she might have changed her mind, David Brooks, notified the program’s upscale and politically astute viewers that a deal might be in the offing. Said Brooks:

“One of the saddest things that has happened this week is Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, and others put together a Simpson-Bowles bill, sort of an outline, and had them vote on that. I think it got like 38 votes in the House. And so we’re going to end up there eventually. We’ll end up with something like Simpson-Bowles.”

CNBC.com joined the smoke-signal gang early last week, passing along remarks from another Democrat, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. “I would want to put Bowles-Simpson in place immediately,” he sai, contending that it would cut spending, simplify the tax code, and fix Medicare and Social Security. Neither Udall nor CNBC told us how it would do all that.

On NBC’s Meet the Press in early May, former Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw signaled acceptance of Simpson-Bowles even more. “There’s something to keep your eye on, Brokaw announced. “There’s a kind of nascent movement at the moment to dust off Simpson-Bowles. To get it back on the table again.” He continued:

“Nancy Pelosi said the other day that she could probably live with it. This was a big miss on the part of the president, even among his admirers, when that bipartisan commission worked very hard, came up—a lot of tough medicine involved there.”

Brokaw also told NBC viewers: “Jamie Dimon, who is the head of Chase Manhattan Bank, who was a big supporter of the president the last time around, he came out and said, ‘Simpson-Bowles.’” Brokaw noted that Nancy Pelosi had also said “Simpson-Bowles.” “A number of people are finding that as maybe the kind of nexus so you can break the gridlock,” he reported.

Such signals raise important questions: Are cuts to Social Security and Medicare part of a grand bargain, modeled on Simpson-Bowles, now within reach? Have political elites agreed on solutions to the deficit problem?

All of which brings me back to the public: What about the ordinary people those solutions would affect? What might those effects be? And what do ordinary people have to say about them? On such questions, the media have been mostly silent.

It may be acceptable for media to act as a conduit for politicians and business moguls. Their announcements and pronouncement fit some definitions of news. And it is certainly a press job to air debate and discussion about a proposal as momentous as Simpson-Bowles.

It’s not acceptable, though, to merely pass along the notion that the Beltway elites are warming up to something as important and far-reaching as the Simpson-Bowles plan without cluing in the public about what’s in store for them if it were to pass. Sound bites don’t do it. Neither does explanatory shorthand that describes the proposal so benignly as a “mix of tax hikes and spending cuts.” Right now Simpson-Bowles is a solution without explanation. (In coming days, we’ll post a Simpson-Bowles explainer on CJR.org that might help reporters and editors.)

Simpson-Bowles is big. In the end the public may well decide that the specific benefit cuts and tax hikes it calls for are fine. And presumably they’ll eventually make their feelings about those cuts and hikes, one way or another, known at the voting machine—if they understand them. Udall himself said: “If I couldn’t be reelected because Bowles-Simpson made some people mad, I could live with that.” That’s what democracy is about, isn’t it.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , , , ,