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Bowles to debt panel: Don't 'fail the country'

WASHINGTON — Former University of North Carolina system president Erskine Bowles warned members of a congressional supercommittee Tuesday of an imminent economic disaster unless lawmakers act quickly to reduce the federal debt.

And Bowles openly questioned whether the committee has the ability to do the job.

"I have great respect for each of you individually, but collectively, I'm worried you're going to fail -- fail the country," said Bowles, a former Charlotte investment banker and one-time chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson to a bi-partisan commission to examine rising federal debt. The commission recommended shaving $4 trillion from deficits over 10 years. But Bowles and Simpson have charged that Obama has ignored the commission's recommendations.

Now, the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction is examining much of the same ground. The panel's lawmakers are largely stuck, at least publicly, on partisan remedies.

The 12-member committee, six Democrats and six Republicans, has 22 more days to devise a plan to save at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

If no plan is adopted, automatic spending cuts totaling about $1 trillion over nine years will go into effect in 2013.

Democrats are reluctant to back dramatic changes in government health care programs. Republicans are adamant that taxes should not go up. If those positions persist, both parties "will be equally complicit in bringing the nation close to the fiscal brink," said former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici.

Bowles, who retired as president of the UNC system in January, characterized the deficit as the most predictable economic crisis in history. He said when he and Simpson began working on the commission, they thought they were working to help their grandkids.

"I have nine and he has six," Bowles said. "But the closer we got to the numbers, the more we realized we weren't doing it for our grandkids, we weren't even doing it for our kids. We were doing it for us, that's how dire the situation is today."

Bowles did add that he felt it was possible to complete the job. He outlined how the two sides could agree on $3.9 trillion in deficit reduction. The two parties, he said, have already signaled agreement in a number of areas that would let them reach that figure.

Co-chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, offered the Republican Party position that changes need to be made in entitlement programs, such as Medicare.

Democrats are reluctant to drastically change such programs, and see higher taxes on the wealthy as an important way to pare deficits.

Co-chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Democrats are ready to deal, but said, "Concessions would only be made, and only considered, in the context of a balanced deal that doesn't just fall on the middle class and most vulnerable Americans."

Bowles methodically laid out where change is needed: A health care system where "outcomes don't match the outlays," defense and taxes.

"I believe we have the most ineffective, inefficient, anti-competitive tax system that man could dream up," he said.

The Simpson-Bowles panel, formally called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, urged a wide range of politically volatile proposals.