Audit D.C. Notes: Newsweek Lets Simpson Speak for Himself; American Banker Connects Politics and Policy, The Hill on the Obvious, Etc.

The bipartisan commission on the national debt established by President Obama is set to start working in a few weeks, and key players on the panel are getting a bit more attention from the press, as they should.

Of course, it’s also just plain fun to write about Alan Simpson, the sharp, saucy Republican co-chair of the group.

Newsweek lets the man speak for himself. Here’s Simpson, in an interview, on why the commission’s work needs to get done, even in the face of Republicans who are poised to opposed anything that might mean higher taxes:

The people who distort the commission and try to scare people into doing nothing, let’s say they win the day, and we don’t do anything to try to bring down this debt. Well, great. They’ve got grandchildren, too, and in 40 years they’ll be sucking canal water and picking grit with the chickens.

“This tax thing,” as Simpson calls it, is a serious issue. Some conservatives cried foul when Simpson got the commission gig, worried that he didn’t have enough anti-tax cred. Grover Norquist was leading the charge, pointing to two budget deals Simpson voted for as a senator that contained tax increases.

The Journal reports that Simpson is firing back. “This `Mr. Tax Hike’ business is garbage,” he said. The Journal also smartly points to what we can expect as the commission gets going, noting that Simpson is trying “to explode the myth that President Ronald Reagan was an antitax paragon.”

“President Reagan was no fanatic or purist,” Simpson says. “There were several occasions during his eight years of real stewardship where taxes (however you define them) were raised….Whatever Ronald Reagan did, and whatever policies he embraced, he did for the good of the American people and for future generations of Americans. As co-chair of the President’s Commission, I would hunch that if President Reagan were alive and active, he would be supportive of the hard work and hard decisions which lie ahead for our Commission.”

That argument gets some strong support from Bruce Bartlett, the former GOP White House and Treasury official who these days spends a lot of time complaining about his old posse. Bartlett’s helpfully posted a list, straight from OMB, of “the many tax increases supported and signed into law by Ronald Reagan, which eventually took back half of the 1981 tax cut.”

This tax talk is going to heat up as the commission gets rolling. And while Simpson is always fun to listen to, we’ll take charts and graphs when we can get them, too.

—Political reporters all too often live in a world of their own, covering pols and polls and staying as far away as possible from anything that looks like policy.

But American Banker deserves credit today for showing why politics reporters should sometimes step out of that box, and why it’s wise for reporters on heavy duty policy beats to keep their eyes on the political calendar.

The piece points to a very real way in which these two worlds might be colliding.

The three latest government programs to cure the foreclosure crisis have at least one thing in common: none will likely be fully operational until this fall, which will push the politically potent issue beyond the midterm elections.

The story talks to lots of people in the industry who see the hand of politics in the delays that servicers are facing as they sort out recent policy changes. But the idea that the government is trying to push back the next batch of foreclosures until after Election Day gets a flat-out rejection from the Treasury Department, and the American Banker piece falls short of proving that the political calendar is driving any policy.

—There’s an odd, breathless quality to The Hill’s story this morning that Republicans are banking on a bunch of business executives-turned-political candidates to boost their chances November.

The Republican campaign committees recruited these candidates because they’re not subject to anti-incumbent anger and many can self-fund their races. Democrats are hoping the anxiety about the economy and the financial bailout will be directed at these corporate executives now seeking office.

Yes, that is a nice encapsulation of one of the themes we’re likely to see as the midterm elections approach. But the story itself goes on to show why there might not be such a big story here after all.

“The Republicans have always gotten some of their most attractive candidates out of the corporate world,” said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. “American corporations are to the Republican Party what the Dominican Republic is to baseball.”

I think that’s one of those times when you don’t need to call the professor for a comment—unless you really love baseball.

—The old Bethlehem Steel mill structure still dominates the city of Bethlehem, Pa., but it’s been a long time since “the Steel” dominated the local economy like it did when I was growing up nearby. I’m happy to see The Wall Street Journal revisit ambitious plans to redevelop the site, and follow up on what has and hasn’t happened.

Las Vegas Sands promised to build a hotel, shopping mall and events center on a corner of the 126-acre Bethlehem Steel site, which was shuttered in 1995. Anchoring it all would be the casino filled with 5,000 slot machines, where even the ceiling lights, made to look like molten iron rods, would evoke the site’s old industrial legacy.

But revenue from the slots parlor, which opened last May, has been disappointing. The hotel and events center are both 20% complete, and the planned shopping mall is 70% complete, all stalled because of the economic downturn.

There’s fascinating detail in this piece—like the fact that daily revenue of $226 a slot machine last month for the casino’s 3,000 slots was the third-lowest among the state’s nine casinos—and surprising good news about the general health of the local economy.

But there are also clear signs that the casino company isn’t that into the project. “If it were today, we probably wouldn’t have started it,” Las Vegas Sands Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson told the paper.

Well done to the Journal for keeping an eye on the project. Be sure to go back in August for Musikfest—it’s where I learned the Chicken Dance.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at