Simpson-Bowles Commission

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Erskine Bowles
Alan K. Simpson

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (often called Bowles-Simpson/Simpson-Bowles Commission after the co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles) is a Presidential Commission created in 2010 by President Barack Obama to identify "…policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run." The Commission first met on April 27, 2010.[1][2]

In November of 2010, the Commission's two chairmen released a draft report that was met with a barrage of criticism. The plan contained painful austerity measures that critics contended would further weaken the economic recovery. It called for cuts in benefits for the elderly, veterans, and many government employees. Most importantly, it would have cut the Social Security “cost of living” or COLA increase. Reduced COLA would amount to a benefit cut of close to 3 percent for a typical retired worker. Since the median income for households of people over age 65 is just $31,000, this would be a big hit to a segment of the population that is already struggling. [3]

The Economic Policy Institute estimated that had the Bowles-Simpson plan been implemented starting in 2012, it would have reduced employment by 1.4 million jobs in 2013 and 1.9 million jobs in 2014. Over the first three years, employment would fall by 4 million jobs under Bowles-Simpson.[4] The EPI also estimated that the Bowles-Simpson plan would have reduced economic growth by 4 percent over the first three years.[4]

The "Moment of Truth" document that is often referred to as the Commission's "final report" (The Moment of Truth: Report of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) is better described as a report of the co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. The Commission failed achieve a 14-member, super-majority vote to approve a final report and trigger a vote in Congress on the package. [5]

On March 28, 2012, Representatives Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Steve LaTourette (R-OH) put forward a bill modeled on the plan which, according to analyst Ezra Klein, had "somewhat less in tax increases." The House rejected the proposal 382 to 38. 22 Democrats and 16 Republicans supported the bill.[6] [7]

Reinhart-Rogoff Error Pulls Explodes Important Argument for Austerity

In 2010, Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff released a study (“Growth in a Time of Debt”) that presented empirical evidence from 44 nations over a 200 year time span to demonstrate that countries with a public debt over 90 percent of GDP have average growth rates much lower than other nations. The study has been cited repeatedly by Bowles and the Commission to justify a push for austerity during an economic downturn[citation needed].

When a team of economists at UMass Amherst got a hold of the data used by Reinhart and Rogoff, they uncovered numerous errors. In 2013, they released their own report which found that "coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics lead to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth." Adjusting for these errors, the Amherst team contends that "the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0.1 percent." [8] Time and time again, economists tried to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results, but to no avail. Now, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin at UMass Amherst show us why. One mistake, admitted by the authors and gaining the most attention, is an Excel spreadsheet error. Check out the screen shot of the year. As the authors put it: "A coding error in the RR working spreadsheet entirely excludes five countries, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, and Denmark, from the analysis. [Reinhart-Rogoff] averaged cells in lines 30 to 44 instead of lines 30 to 49... This spreadsheet error... is responsible for a -0.3 percentage-point error in RR's published average real GDP growth in the highest public debt/GDP category." Belgium, in particular, has 26 years with debt-to-GDP above 90 percent, with an average growth rate of 2.6 percent (though this is only counted as one total point due to the weighting above). [8]

Mother Jones dubbed it "the Excel Error Heard Round the World.” But there are multiple errors in the study detailed here by financial writer Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute. [9]

Study Used to Justify Harmful Cuts and High Unemployment

It is hard to understate the importance of the flawed Reinhart-Rogoff study. It has been cited around the globe by academics, politicians, and the mainstream media. In the United States, it is one of Paul Ryan's favorite justifications for his draconian Path to Prosperity budget, for GOP rejection of further stimulus, and the Fix the Debt crowd's frenzied calls for urgent action. Simpson-Bowles, Pete Peterson and "Fix the Debt" have all cited this study to justify harmful cuts and a stalemate on stimulus currently condemning millions to mass unemployment. In Europe, "R&R's work and its derivatives have been used to justify austerity policies that have pushed the unemployment rate over 10 percent for the euro zone as a whole and above 20 percent in Greece and Spain. In other words, this is a mistake that has had enormous consequences" for real people, says economist Dean Baker in a piece called "How Much Unemployment Did Reinhart and Rogoff's Arithmetic Mistake Cause?"

Ties to Pete Peterson and "Fix the Debt"

The economists both have ties to Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson. As the Center for Media and Democracy detailed in the online report, "The Peterson Pyramid," the Blackstone billionaire turned philanthropist has spent half a billion dollars to promote this chorus of calamity. Through the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Peterson has funded practically every think tank and non-profit that works on deficit- and debt-related issues, including his latest 2012 astroturf supergroup, "Fix the Debt.” Reinhart, described glowingly by the New York Times as "the most influential female economist in the world," was a Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics founded, chaired, and funded by Peterson. Reinhart is listed as participating in many Peterson Institute events, such as their 2012 fiscal summit along with Paul Ryan, Alan Simpson, and Tim Geithner, and numerous other Peterson lectures and events available on YouTube. She is married to economist and author Vincent Reinhart, who does similar work for the American Enterprise Institute, also funded by the Peterson Foundation. Kenneth Rogoff is listed on the Advisory Board of the Peterson Institute. The Peterson Institute bankrolled and published a 2011 Rogoff-Reinhart book-length collaboration, "A Decade of Debt," where the authors apparently used the same flawed data to reach many of the same conclusions and warn ominously of a "debt burden" stretching into 2017 that "will weigh heavily on the public policy agenda of numerous advanced economies and global financial markets for some time to come." (Note that not everyone associated with the Institute touts the Peterson party line.)

This article is part of the Center for Media and Democracy's investigation of Pete Peterson's Campaign to "Fix the Debt." Please visit our main SourceWatch page on Fix the Debt.

About Fix the Debt
The Campaign to Fix the Debt is the latest incarnation of a decades-long effort by former Nixon man turned Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson to slash earned benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare under the guise of fixing the nation's "debt problem." Through a special report and new interactive wiki resource, the Center for Media and Democracy -- in partnership with the Nation magazine -- exposes the funding, the leaders, the partner groups, and the phony state "chapters" of this astroturf supergroup. Learn more at and in the Nation magazine.

At the launch of the Simpson-Bowles Commission it was announced that the Commission would be "partnering with outside groups," such as the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's America Speaks initiative.[10] [11]

The Washington Post's Dan Eggen, in a Nov. 10, 2010 story titled "Many deficit commission staffers paid by outside groups," revealed that two members of the Commission worked for Peterson-funded organizations. One of them was Ed Lorezen, who currently serves as the Senior Policy Advisor to the CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and formerly served as the Concord Coalition's policy director from 2005-2007.[12] [13] The other was Marc Goldwein, whose salary was paid for by the Peterson-funded Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. He is a Senior Policy Analyst at the New America Foundation, an organization that also took part of the aforementioned Peterson-Pew Commission, whose conclusions about how to cut the deficit strongly mirrored those of the Commission.[14][15]

"Peterson launched a massive effort to prop up the Simpson-Bowles Commission and its $4 trillion austerity package, a plan that would “destroy Social Security by stealth,” according to Strengthen Social Security. He bankrolled nineteen “America Speaks” town hall meetings to inform the commission’s deliberations, launched the “Owe No” TV ad campaign weeks before recommendations were released and bankrolled the Concord Coalition’s “Fiscal Solutions” tour to take the message to the heartland. When the commission blew up, Peterson gave Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles a new perch at the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget."[16]

Karl Rove and Republicans Attack Democrats for Supporting Cuts to Social Security and Simpson-Bowles, 2014

The Washington Post and Politico reported that Republicans, led by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, were attacking Democratic candidates in the 2014 midterm elections for supporting the “bipartisan” cuts to Social Security. Ads attacking Democratic candidates were run by Crossroads GPS as well as the National Republican Campaign Committee.[17]

As reporter Roger Eskow of Campaign for America's Future reported: "Democrats like Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina are being slammed for supporting increases in the retirement age and cuts to future benefits. Adding insult to injury, Republican ads are mocking the once-revered, supposedly “bipartisan” Simpson-Bowles deficit proposal as a “controversial plan” that “raises the retirement age.”" Eskow warned repeatedly that this was likely to be the result of any bipartisan compromise over austerity or Simpson-Bowles. "It is both those things, of course. It does raise the retirement age, and it is controversial – controversial enough to be opposed by most Republicans, as well as overwhelming majorities of Democrats and independents, according to polls."[18][19]


Reaction to the Plan

Robert Kuttner

In a Nov. 11, 2010 appearance on Democracy Now!, Journalist Robert Kuttner had this to say about the Commission: "We’re in a prolonged recession that bears more resemblance really to a depression. And you cannot get out of a depression by austerity. The idea that you should have an arbitrary set of cuts in the deficit at a time when you need more public spending is totally perverse. It’s the economics of Herbert Hoover. It’s the politics of the Republican right. And it’s one more indication of the capture of the Obama administration by Wall Street. I mean, Erskine B. Bowles gets over $300,000 a year [20] for attending a few meetings of Morgan Stanley, the investment bank, on whose board he sits, so he gets more money in board fees than 99 percent of Americans earn. And you’ve got three privately funded commissions by the Peterson Foundation, Pete Peterson, proposing the same stuff. It’s intended to create a drumbeat to carry out a wish list that has long been the goal of fiscal conservatives, that has nothing to do with this crisis."

President Obama

President Obama implicitly called for cutting Social Security and phasing in an increase in the normal retirement age to 69 when he endorsed the deficit reduction plan.[21] He also mentioned the report positively in his 2013 State of the Union address.[22] Economist Dean Baker explains the impact on Social Security: "The reduction in benefits is the result of their proposal to reduce the size of the annual cost of living adjustment by 0.3 percentage points by using a different price index. After 10 years this would imply a reduction in benefits of 3 percent, after 20 years the reduction would be 6 percent, and after 30 years the reduction would be 9 percent. If the average beneficiary lives long enough to collect benefits for 20 years, the average reduction in benefits would be approximately 3 percent."[23]

James K. Galbraith

In his statement to the Commission, prominent economist James K. Galbraith was very critical:[24]

Your proceedings are clouded by illegitimacy. In this respect, there are four major issues...

Galbraith went on to identify the problems: the secrecy of the proceedings, the temperament of the leadership, the lack of economic expertise on the commission, and conflicts of interest.

Conflicts of interest constitute the fourth major problem. The fact that the Commission has accepted support from Peter G. Peterson, a man who has for decades conducted a relentless campaign to cut Social Security and Medicare, raises the most serious questions. Quite apart from the merits of Mr. Peterson’s arguments, this act must be condemned. A Commission serving public purpose cannot accept funds or other help from a private party with a strong interest in the outcome of that Commission’s work. Your having done so is a disgrace."

Paul Krugman

New York Times economic columnist Paul Krugman is one of the commission's most prominent critics; "Simpson-Bowles is terrible. It mucks around with taxes, but is obsessed with lowering marginal rates despite a complete absence of evidence that this is important. It offers nothing on Medicare that isn’t already in the Affordable Care Act. And it raises the Social Security retirement age because life expectancy has risen — completely ignoring the fact that life expectancy has only gone up for the well-off and well-educated, while stagnating or even declining among the people who need the program most."[25]

Robert Reich

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor under the Clinton Administration, was also critical: "[T]he report mentions but doesn’t emphasize the biggest driver of future deficits – the relentless rise in health-care costs coupled with the pending corrosion of 77 million boomer bodies. This is 70 percent of the problem, but it gets about 3 percent of the space in the draft. The report suffers a more fundamental error — the unquestioned assumption that America’s biggest economic challenge is to reduce the federal budget deficit. The size of the budget deficit (and cumulative debt) is meaningless without reference to the size of the economy. What looks like a big debt 10 or 20 years from now may turn out to be small if growth has been rapid in the intervening years. By the same token, a seemingly small future debt can become unmanageable if the economy tanks, or barely grows at all."[26]

Richard Trumka

Speaking about the report's deficit-cutting proposals, Richard L. Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO said: "With this report the Deficit Commission once again tells working Americans to 'Drop Dead.' No proposal on fiscal issues is serious that leaves the Bush tax cuts for the rich in place while raising taxes on the middle class and slashing Social Security and Medicare."[27]

Obama Destroying Social Security & Medicare?

Cuts to Vital Services for Working Families

The Bowles-Simpson plan would impose $1.7 trillion in spending cuts to discretionary programs over the next decade.[28]

The Bowles-Simpson plan does not clarify which specific services would be cut. Rather, it establishes an overall spending limit that applies to all discretionary programs—ranging from education, public health, infrastructure and environmental protections. An indiscriminate cap on discretionary spending ignores the current crisis in many service areas.

For example, one of the programs that would be subject to the annual squeeze on spending would be Early Head Start. Early Head Start exists to address the comprehensive needs of low-income children under age 3 and pregnant women. Because of current funding shortfalls, less than four percent of eligible children receive Early Head Start services.[29]

Similarly, the Child Care and Development Block Grant helps low-income parents pay for child care so that they can work or go to school. Under current funding levels allow only one in six eligible children receive child care assistance.[30] In recent years states have made deep cuts to child care programs. Nearly half of states either turn away new applicants or place eligible children on waiting lists. Only one state meets the federal-recommended standard for payment rates for child care providers.[31]

Mental Health Services would also be impacted by spending limits in Bowles-Simpson that force new cuts every year. States and communities have significantly reduced funding for mental health and addiction services. In four years (state fiscal years 2009 to 2013) states cut $4.35 billion in mental health services, while an additional 700,000 people sought help at public mental health programs during this period.[32]

Revenue Increases Give the Wealthy a Pass

The Bowles-Simpson plan would have reduced the deficit by nearly $4 trillion over ten years. Only 25 percent of the deficit reduction would have come from new revenues.[28]

Commission Members


Executive Director:

  • Bruce Reed, former Chief Domestic Policy Adviser to President Clinton


Articles and Resources

Featured SourceWatch Articles on Fix the Debt


  1. Executive Order -- National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Feb. 18, 2010.
  2. About the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform
  3. Dean Baker, Erskine Bowles: An Object Lesson, The Guardian, September 10, 2012, Accessed January 7, 2013
  4. 4.0 4.1 Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse, Fiscal commissioners' proposal would cost millions of jobs, Economic Policy Institute, November 16, 2010.
  5. In a 11-7 Tally, the Fiscal Commission Falls Short on Votes The New York Times, December 3, 2010.
  6. Ezra Klein, Wonkbook: House reaches bipartisan deal to reject Simpson-Bowles The Washington Post - WonkBlog, March 29, 2012.
  7. Andrew Taylor, Simpson-Bowles Plan Rejected By House, The Huffington Post, March 28, 2012.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, Robert Pollin, Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts , April 15, 2013.
  9. Mike Konczal, Researchers Finally Replicated Reinhart-Rogoff, and There Are Serious Problems, Next New Deal, April 16, 2013.
  10. Lori Montgomery, Presidential commission to address rising national debt, Washington Post, April 27, 2010.
  11. Mark Schmitt, Philanthropy is My Co-Pilot, The American Prospect, April 29, 2010.
  12. Ed Lorenzen, Many deficit commission staffers paid by outside groups, The Washington Post, November 10, 2010.
  13. Ed Lorenzen,, Accessed January 8, 2013.
  14. Marc Goldwein,, Accessed January 8, 2013.
  15. Marc Goldwein, New America Foundation,, Accessed January 8, 2013.
  16. Lisa Graves, [pete peterson article], The Nation, February 21, 2013.
  17. Lori Montgomery, "GOP changes tune on cutting Social Security with elections on the line," Washington Post, October 23, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2014.
  18. Richard Eschow, "GOP Betrays Social Security-Cutting Dems: Who Could’ve Seen It Coming?," Campaign for America's Future, October 28, 2014. Accessed December 12, 2014.
  19. Populist Majority, Campaign for America's Future, collection of polling data, accessed December 12, 2014.
  20. Director Compensation,, Accessed January 8, 2013.
  21. David Rogers, Obama endorses deficit commission plan, Politico, January 23, 2010.
  22. New York Times, 2013 State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013.
  23. President Obama Calls for Cutting Social Security by 3 Percent, Raising Normal Retirement Age in Acceptance Speech, Center for Economic and Policy Research, September 7, 2012.
  24. Campaign for America's Future, James K. Galbraith Statement to the Commission On Deficit Reduction, text of testimony, June 30, 2010.
  25. Paul Krugman, A Public Service Reminder: Simpson-Bowles Is Terrible, The New York Times, September 30, 2012.
  26. Robert Reich, Why We Should Beware Budget-Deficit Mania, personal website, November 11, 2010.
  27. Deficit Panel Releases Proposals to Cut Spending Ahead of Vote,, December 2, 2013.
  28. 28.0 28.1 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, The Moment of Truth, commission report, December 2010.
  29. Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Supporting Our Youngest Children: Early Head Start Programs in 2010, March, 2012.
  30. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Child care: Multiple factors could have contributed to the recent decline in the number of children whose families receive subsidies, 2010.
  31. The National Women’s Law Center, Downward Slide: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2012, October 11, 2012.
  32. The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD), Too Significant To Fail: The Importance of State Behavioral Health Agencies in the Daily Lives of Americans with Mental Illness, for Their Families, and for Their Communities. 2012, 2012.
  33. Commission Members, Accessed January 4, 2013

External resources