My Interview with Former Sen. Alan Simpson

from my blog, Basie!

Last night, I spoke with former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY). Simpson was first elected to the WY House in 1964. After 17 years there, Simpson was elected to the United States Senate in 1978, where he served as GOP Whip and Veterans' Affairs Chairman.

Jonathan Singer: One of the big things that has occurred in the Senate recently was the deal to stop the "constitutional" or the so-called "nuclear" option. You were around in the Senate in the `80s and the early `90s for a number of the major battles over nominees, whether it was Bork, whether it was Thomas. Do you think the deal will hold? And what will be the repercussions of it?

Alan Simpson: I think that what the seven moderates on each side did... The deal will hold, unless they put up a card-carrying commie or a guard from Lenin's tomb or something, or a ragged Neanderthal on the Republican side. [ctd.]

Simpson [continued]: It will hold because they know that whatever the Republicans do here to lessen the rights of the minority, in ten years they'll be in the minority and they'll feel the sting of the lash. That's the way it works. Like a giant wheel with a hobnail boot. You set it in motion, it'll kick your opponent in the ass, but eventually it'll get you too.

Singer: Given that President Bush seems to be in favor of forwarding pretty conservative justices - he hasn't listed people specifically, but people are throwing around names like Thomas and Scalia (for Chief Justice) - should the Democrats filibuster someone like Clarence Thomas, do you think the Republicans will invoke the "nuclear" option at that point?

Simpson: It's hard to say at this point. It just depends on what the person's previous activity had been. Sad part is they go back ten or twenty years of legal opinions that were done for law review articles or to stimulate discussion, and that's unfair on either side of the aisle. So eventually I guess you'll get no one on the court except people that haven't written anything or done anything, and that's a sad situation.

Singer: A number of Senators have talked about the fact that this started around the time when you first became a Senator, when the Democrats starting to block some of Reagan's nominees and the first President Bush's nominees, and there was quite a bit of retaliation once the Republicans took over the Senate. I think Chuck Hagel said 62 of Clinton's nominees were blocked in one way or another, and the Democrats have blocked at least a dozen or so so far. Is there any way of getting out of this cycle of retribution - one side blocking the other, and the other side blocking the first?

Simpson: Yeah. Times, people change, the public changes. I don't think the public is interested in seeing this. It comes from people who are zealous on both sides. Zealotry is not an attractive trait. Certainly the issue of people thinking compromise means that you're a wimp. That's not an attractive idea.

I think they'll work through it. Extremists do not have the power to change the Senate. That's already known. You have moderates in the middle who have the power, and they'll keep the power as long as you don't change the rules of the filibuster. I don't think they should change the rules of the filibuster.

Singer: When you served, there were still a number of moderate or liberal Republicans within the caucus, yourself included, but also people like Oregon Senators Hatfield and Packwood, John Danforth, and John Chafee. Now that the number seems to have gone down, do you think there can be a resurgence of your wing of the party?

Simpson: If you have people that are moderate on both sides - you have Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, Lincoln Chafee and Judd Gregg, often, Jeffords will be leaving, he was fully an independent. I can't find who will be there and what they will do, but the middle will always save the day.

Singer: For major legislation such as Social Security to pass, it will take a great move toward the middle. Literally, the Republicans need the votes from at least five Democrats to invoke cloture on a Social Security bill. But there hasn't been so much reaching out yet. What more can the President and the Republicans do to get those five or more Democrats on board?

Simpson: Well the Democrats haven't put up any proposals. They don't intend to. So there won't be any Social Security reform coming out of this Congress in my mind.

I testified before a House committee with Tim Penny. I've never seen such sarcasm and hostility. Michael Oxley, the chairman, and Barney Frank seem to have a good relationship, but let me tell you, I heard plain old sarcasm and caustic comments.

I said, "gentlemen and ladies, you'll never get that done on this end. You'd better appoint a commission and take the heat off yourselves, because you're never going to make it yourselves."

Singer: Some people say that the Democrats are modeling themselves after the Republicans in 1994 - maybe not as much on your side in the Senate, but certainly in the House - just simply not engaging President Clinton's healthcare proposal. Do you think that's a fair characterization?

Simpson: Everybody can pick their own flashpoint. The flashpoint on judges was Robert Bork. Here was a very capable man, exceeding capable and rather extraordinary. He had done 104 opinions as a district court judge. None of them had ever been reversed. And six of his dissenting opinions became majority opinions of the United States Supreme Court. And before my eyes, they just cremated him. They tore him to bits. So that was the start.

[There's a book] called The People Rising by Michael Pertschuk, Democrat. I know Michael. I went to him, I said "Michael, you just wrote the bible. They're going to use that on your guy the next time to rip him or her apart. That's the way it works."

Singer: Looking at Social Security, the problem with Social Security, if you take the President's number the program's trust fund will be bankrupt in 2040 or so, at which point benefits will be cut by about a quarter. Medicare, on the other hand, the trust fund will run out within about the next decade. Is it time to focus on Medicare and Medicaid rather than Social Security?

Simpson: No. That would be a real grave mistake. You'd better cure the lesser one before you go for the cancer. Go for the one that is lesser, because the figures are huge. Guys your age will be eaten alive in regard to money. So if they can't resolve Social Security, then don't even try to help Medicare if you haven't done anything on Social Security.

Singer: I just want to thank you so much. I really appreciate this time.

Simpson: It sounds to me, Jonathan, like you're very involved in politics, and I admire that. Keep going with that.

Singer: Thank you so much. I truly appreciate it.


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