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Insight by Mike Causey: View from the cliff

The horrors of sequestration and the dire consequences of going over the fiscal cliff have replaced presidential politics (for now) as the topics du jour in official Washington. So-called experts speculate as to whether the light at the end of the tunnel means sunlight, or whether it is the powerful beam of an 80 mph train heading straight for us. So what's it going to be? And what role might a popular former president and a popular former presidential candidate play to stop the train and bring the nation out into the sunshine?

Most of us who "cover" Washington, either for TV, radio, the print press or the Internet, have two groups of people to impress: Our editors and you. To do this, we must ferret out news. Absent that, we can fall back on what-if scenarios that fill the space, keep the 24/7 news cycle cycling, and allow us to avoid doing what most Americans do, which is real work.

To be a top pundit (or a more lowly one who still has to make a buck), it is essential that people (if not our peers) believe that we have access to the power brokers, and to insiders who feed us information. Unfortunately, most of the insiders I know are people who work in cubicles or offices that are not near windows. Still, from time to time even those "insiders" come up with something and help keep us in the know.

Since mid-2011, the talk of the town (at least this town) has been the deficit, taxes and tax reform, and spending cuts. Both political parties say they have great ideas. Assuming they are correct, the problem is that not enough people on the other side—or sometimes within their own party—agree with the ideas. Or they appoint commissions, panels and blue ribbon groups who, if they come up with any proposals, are promptly ignored—even (and sometimes especially) by the people who appointed them.

The Simpson-Bowles commission, authorized by the White House, was supposed to be the solution. It was co-chaired by a respected former senator, Republican Alan Simpson from Wyoming, and an equally respected former Democratic White House official, Erskine Bowles.

The commission's membership made it look like a winner even before it started. It included respected heavy-hitters from Congress and the business community, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who later on was nominated to run as vice president. Ryan was a hero to many because of his knowledge of the budget. And he was also seen as a hero or villain because of some of the things he proposed before and after being on the commission.

Designed like the BRAC (base realignment and closure) commission, the idea was that the Simpson-Bowles group would propose tough cuts. The White House was supposed to forward those ideas, with a little pain for everyone, to Congress. Then the House and Senate were supposed to vote them up or down, and that would be that. Done deal. Except ...

It didn't work that way.

Some members, like Ryan, balked at the proposals. The White House cherry-picked a couple of ideas, Congress pretty much ignored the commission, and it went away, although many said the proposals it made would become the matrix for some kind of save-the-government grand design this year.

President Obama did adopt a couple of the recommendations. The commission proposed a three-year federal pay freeze. The president implemented instead a two-year freeze, as you well know, and now Congress and the White House have agreed to extend it at least through March 31, 2013.

Now comes a new idea which, backers—dare I say “insiders”—are floating:

Appoint another commission. The co-chairs, the dream team, would be former President Bill Clinton—a very popular Democratic ex-president who has more political capital, and skills, than almost anyone around, maybe anybody—and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a popular and well-known Republican who—even critics say—is a very sharp businessman and CEO with a consultant’s ability to think outside the box.

Then let the commission tackle tax reform and entitlements. Let them call the shots and be done with it.

Will it happen? If so, will it work?

At this point, my crystal ball becomes cloudy. But with little time left before the political version of end times, and with the stock market beginning to tank, it might be worth a shot.


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