10 Questions for Alan Simpson

Co-chair of the deficit-reduction commission Alan Simpson on the debt and his gun-toting grandpa

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Steven G. Smith / Corbis

As a former GOP Senator, you've seen your share of debt-ceiling votes and deficit talks. Is this round any different?

This is different because of what's happening in the real world. We were never globally connected like we are now. You can't play games.

How bad is it? Could the U.S. become the next Greece?

As my pal Erskine [Bowles, co-chairman of the deficit-reduction commission] says, "We're the healthiest horse in the glue factory."

What's the biggest obstacle to cutting the deficit?

The absolute rigidity of the parties. I've never seen that before. Somebody said they're as rigid as a fireplace poker but without the occasional warmth.

What do you think when you hear these words: Social Security?

Nobody's trying to balance the budget on the backs of poor old seniors. We're trying to make the damn system solvent! Unless you do something, in the year 2036 you're going to waddle up to the window and get a check for 23% less, and if that's smart, the drinks are on me.

Defense?

We found enough fat in the Defense Department to send a truck of potato chips to the obese. Take one example, Tricare, a health care plan for 2.2 million military retirees, separate from the VA. The premium is $470 a year, and there's no co-pay, and the cost is $53 billion a year. Try to change even that, and you get "You're not a patriot."

Medicare?

It doesn't matter if you call it "Obamacare" or "Elvis Presley care" or "I-don't-care care." It cannot sustain itself in its present form. You've got to do things that are very irritating. You've got to reduce providers' and physicians' compensation, start charging co-pays and affluence-testing beneficiaries. You've got to make hospitals keep one set of books, not three. Impossible.

If you were in office today, would you sign Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge?

Hell, no! Why would you sign anything before you went into office or before you had the debate and listened to it?

Well, obviously, to get elected?

I never signed it, and I never got defeated for re-election. The revenue coming into the U.S. [government] is 15% of GDP, which is the lowest since the Korean War. In the past 20 years, it has been 19% to 20%. If you can't move that a half-inch, then you're never going to get anywhere.

Would you run for office now?

Oh, hell, no. Now it's just sharp elbows, and instead of having a caucus where you sit down and say, "What are you going to do for your country?" you sit figuring out how to screw the other side.

According to a new biography, your grandfather had money troubles. Is that what made you so fiscally responsible?

I never thought about that at all. My grandfather gambled and drank and twice came home and said to my grandmother, "Pack it up, Maggie. We don't own this house anymore." He shot a banker's ear off because the banker kept bouncing a check even though there were funds. My grandfather was a Democrat, and the banker said, "We don't like Democrats here." He also killed a man in the middle of Main Street and was charged with first-degree murder. But the jury came in eight for acquittal. He was a pretty volatile guy.