Bowles: Work on federal deficit panel won't interfere with UNC duties
Posted February 18, 2010 10:25 a.m. EST
Updated February 19, 2010 6:54 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama moved unilaterally Thursday to create a bipartisan commission to rein in unruly deficits after Congress rejected legislation providing a similar body with considerably more enforcement power.
In making the announcement, Obama said that unless lawmakers put aside partisan differences, the red-ink trend could "hobble our economy."
The federal deficit hit a record $1.4 trillion last year and could grow larger this year as the struggling economy puts a big dent in tax collections.
"It will cloud our future, and it will saddle every child in America with an intolerable burden," he said before signing an executive order establishing the commission.
Obama signed the executive order flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senate Whip Alan Simpson. He chose Bowles and Simpson to lead the panel, which will be charged with reporting back by the end of this year on what steps Congress and the administration should take to get the deficit down to 3 percent of the gross domestic product, a level that economists believe is manageable.
Last year's deficit equaled 9.9 percent of GDP, the highest point since World War II, and is projected to climb to 10.6 percent of GDP this year.
“This is one of the most critically important challenges facing the country today, and it has be addressed in a bipartisan manner," Bowles said in a statement. "This is not a Republican or Democratic problem – this is a challenge for America.”
Bowles announced last Friday that he will retire by the end of the year as president of the University of North Carolina System. He said then that he didn't want to get back into partisan politics.
On Thursday, he send a message to the UNC Board of Governors, saying: "I believe that when the President of the United States believes you can help your Country in a matter of material importance, you have a moral obligation to say 'Yes.'"
He also cited his experience in the Clinton administration. "The fiscal health of our country is something I obviously care about very deeply," Bowles wrote.
He reiterated his commitment to serve UNC through the end of the semester.
"I can serve as a volunteer, continue to reside in North Carolina, and fulfill my responsibilities to the university," Bowles wrote.
"Believe you me, I thought long and hard about taking on this effort before I agreed to serve," Bowles concluded.
"I also want to be clear that it had no bearing whatsoever on my retirement plans, and it certainly has not lessened by resolve and determination to fully execute on our UNC Tomorrow Action Plan before my time here is done."
After returning to the Triangle, he said tough decisions are necessary. Otherwise, the debt burden will be out of control for future generations, he said.
"That means no money for the military, no money for education, no money for infrastructure – none, zero – (and) no money for Social Security," Bowles said Friday. "We have to address this. One of the things they teach us here at the university is arithmatic. This is easy, basic arithmatic. The path we're on now is not sustainable."
In addition to Bowles and Simpson, Obama will appoint four other members to the panel. Republican and Democratic leaders will each appoint six additional members. Obama said the panel's recommendations will require approval by 14 of the 18 members, assuring that the recommendations will have bipartisan support.
But the executive commission is a weak substitute for what the president really wanted: a panel created by Congress that could force lawmakers to consider unpopular remedies to reduce the debt, including curbing politically sensitive entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.
That bipartisan panel would have delivered lawmakers a deficit reduction blueprint after the November elections that would have been subject to votes before a new Congress convenes next year. But the idea faltered in the Senate, defeated by equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, including some of whom initially supported the idea.
Though Obama's commission will lack any requirement for Congress to act on its advice, it could provide the president some political cover with an electorate that is increasingly concerned about the massive deficit. And the panel has some big-name backing.
Bowles served as Democratic President Bill Clinton's chief of staff from 1996 to 1998. Simpson, a senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997, was the No. 2 Republican and the top GOP member of the Social Security subcommittee.
The nation's huge deficits are being caused by the impact of a severe recession, which has trimmed the government's tax receipts and raised spending on such programs as unemployment insurance and food stamps. The deficits also reflect the billions of dollars being spent from the $862 billion stimulus program passed in February 2009 and the $700 billion financial bailout program Congress passed in October 2008 to stabilize the banking system.