Fiscal Fights Looming, Can Simpson-Bowles Group Get Congress to Move?

Fix the Debt effort has the cash to make campaigns difficult for uncompromising members. If only it would use it effectively.

President Barack Obama's Debt Commission co-chairmen, Erskine Bowles right, and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, walk to a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2010. 
National Journal
Chris Frates
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Chris Frates
Aug. 27, 2013, 2 a.m.

With its bi­par­tis­an brand­ing, bold­face names, and big money, the Cam­paign to Fix the Debt muscled its way in­to Wash­ing­ton power polit­ics last sum­mer. But as Con­gress preps for yet an­oth­er fisc­al show­down, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans doubt the group has the swat to push either side far enough to­ward the cen­ter to se­cure its holy grail: a grand bar­gain that in­cludes en­ti­tle­ment-spend­ing re­forms and new rev­en­ues that re­duce the de­fi­cit.

Not even a $25 mil­lion war chest is enough to con­vince con­gres­sion­al in­siders that the co­ali­tion has the juice to break the par­tis­an im­passe. By ad­voc­at­ing for en­ti­tle­ment re­forms, which Demo­crats dis­like, and new rev­en­ues, which Re­pub­lic­ans re­ject, the group may have only suc­ceeded in con­vin­cing each party that they aren’t push­ing the oth­er side hard enough.

“I don’t think they ad­voc­ate in­cred­ibly strongly or ef­fect­ively,” said a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide. “For how much money they have, they should be more ef­fect­ive.”

An­oth­er Demo­crat, a Sen­ate lead­er­ship aide, put it this way, “They’d get farther if they would be will­ing to push Re­pub­lic­ans on rev­en­ues as part of the debt dis­cus­sion.”

And then there’s the Re­pub­lic­an take: “For Fix the Debt to be suc­cess­ful they have to do a lot of work on the oth­er side of the aisle,” said a seni­or GOP Sen­ate aide. “That’s where Fix the Debt’s chal­lenges are go­ing to be, on the left. Re­form is hard.”

The Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide, who is fa­mil­i­ar with the group’s work­ings, ar­gued that the group’s im­port­ance has lessened since the fisc­al-cliff battles. As the coun­try ap­proached last year’s dead­line that would have raised taxes and triggered across-the-board spend­ing cuts, law­makers pan­icked. Fix the Debt, the aide said, swooped in and ex­pertly played the role of bi­par­tis­an edu­cat­ors.

But this time around, the de­bates are fa­mil­i­ar, as law­makers dis­cuss fund­ing the gov­ern­ment bey­ond Sept. 30 and rais­ing the gov­ern­ment’s bor­row­ing lim­it.

“People aren’t really scared, cer­tainly like they were lead­ing up to the fisc­al cliff,” the aide said.

Not to men­tion that some Demo­crats view Fix the Debt war­ily be­cause it’s fun­ded by big busi­nesses in­clud­ing Gen­er­al Elec­tric, which gave $1 mil­lion to its par­ent or­gan­iz­a­tion, and JP Mor­gan Chase, which gave the cam­paign $500,000. Some Demo­crats ar­gue that the group tilts con­ser­vat­ive.

Fix the Debt spokes­man Jon Ro­mano says the group is even bet­ter pre­pared for this fall’s loom­ing fisc­al show­down than it was for last year’s fisc­al cliff. Since then, the group has in­creased its state net­work by 60 per­cent and is now act­ive in 33 states and has 625 com­mit­tee mem­bers, 120 former rep­res­ent­at­ives and sen­at­ors, and 2,500 small-busi­ness mem­bers.

“Any­body who thinks this cam­paign was go­ing to go away after the in­ac­tion of the last year is just kid­ding them­selves. We’re more equipped now for this next phase than we were, frankly, dur­ing the fisc­al cliff,” Ro­mano said. “Our mes­sage is go­ing to be loud and clear: We need Con­gress and the pres­id­ent to put a debt deal in place.”

The group plans to push Con­gress to re­con­sider the across-the-board spend­ing cuts that went in­to place earli­er this year, paint­ing it as an is­sue that hurts every­day Amer­ic­ans.

“Fifty-sev­en thou­sand kids aren’t go­ing to have Head Start be­cause Con­gress couldn’t fix the debt,” he said. “One hun­dred and thirty-six thou­sand fam­il­ies aren’t go­ing to have rent­al as­sist­ance be­cause Con­gress couldn’t fix the debt.”

But per­haps more con­vin­cing than any rhet­or­ic is the group’s bill­fold. It has the re­sources to make a lot of noise but has yet to use them ef­fect­ively. But that may be chan­ging.

Ac­cord­ing to a source fa­mil­i­ar with the cam­paign’s strategy, Fix the Debt is con­sid­er­ing us­ing some of that cash to ex­ert in­flu­ence through cam­paign polit­ics. “Twenty-five mil­lion dol­lars is a lot of money. Mem­bers don’t want to go in­to their reeelec­tion with an­oth­er head­ache and there aren’t many groups that have that kind of money.”

In­deed, that cash buys a lot of or­gan­iz­a­tion. The group has sent 150,000 let­ters to law­makers, placed 150 state op-eds, and held a Ju­ly fly-in where 55 people from 19 states held 73 meet­ings that gen­er­ated 40 me­dia men­tions in 19 mar­kets. And the group plans to do print, TV, and on­line ad­vert­ising in tar­geted dis­tricts, Ro­mano said.

But Ro­mano ac­know­ledged there is only so much out­side groups can do to push law­makers to­ward a deal.

“There’s not go­ing to be a deal be­cause of pres­sure from out­side groups like this. There’s go­ing to be a deal be­cause they want to lead on this,” Ro­mano said. “We’re go­ing to put as much pres­sure as pos­sible on them to get a deal done.”

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