Erskine Bowles was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff from 1996 to 1998, and he twice sought to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate. But he's probably better known for his role on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
During President Barack Obama’s first term, Bowles, a Democrat, along with former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, led the commission’s preparation of a $3.9 trillion deficit-reduction plan -- a blueprint that came to be known as the Bowles-Simpson plan. While their proposal garnered favorable feedback from some congressional leaders and several Wall Street executives, the commission lacked the votes to send it to lawmakers on Capitol Hill in December 2010. After working on the commission, Bowles and Simpson founded the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a bipartisan group that advocates for long-term deficit reduction.
A well-known Washington insider, Bowles was deputy White House chief of staff from 1994 to 1995. Before that, he was appointed by President Clinton to be the director of the Small Business Administration in 1993.
When he left the White House, Bowles went on to lose two back-to-back U.S. Senate contests in the Tar Heel state. In 2002 he lost to Republican Elizabeth Dole, and in 2004 he was defeated by Republican Richard Burr. He followed those senatorial bids with a stint as president of the University of North Carolina’s 16-campus system from 2005 to 2010.
His staunch advocacy for fiscal soundness over the years helped raise his profile across the corporate landscape. Bowles is a director at Morgan Stanley, Norfolk Southern Corp., Belk and Facebook. And while he has been touring the country over the past several years warning of reckless government spending, he has been making millions for sitting on the boards of companies that are dramatically underperforming against the market, yet lavishing generous payouts on their respective CEOs -- all with the approval of the board of directors.
In 2007, Bowles received $335,000 for his work as a director at Morgan Stanley. Then, from 2008 through 2012, the financial firm paid him $1.67 million, according to a review of public records. While chief executive officer pay there was held down to less than $1.3 million annually in 2008 and 2009, from 2010 to 2012 -- when the firm’s stock fell significantly -- CEO pay totaled $38.8 million.
In February 2011, Bowles became a director of Norfolk Southern Corp. and was paid $594,415 for his service to the railroad company, according to records. In 2012, Norfolk Southern’s stock fell below the S&P average. That year, CEO Charles W. Moorman IV’s total compensation was valued at $12.7 million, 16 percent above what it had been in 2010.
In September 2011, Bowles joined the board of Facebook prior to the social media website’s May 18, 2012, initial public offering. While Facebook’s stock fell sharply following its IPO, it has since rebounded. Still, certain financial analysts continue to express skepticism about Facebook’s ability to increase its advertising base in the years to come.
Bowles was a member of the General Motors board from June 2005 until April 2009, when the auto giant filed for bankruptcy. He also served on the board of the embattled doughnut maker Krispy Kreme, and from April 2003 through May 2012 he served on the board of Georgia-based Cousins Properties, a real estate investment firm.
During his time at Cousins, the firm underperformed the market average, and since the recession its stock has fared particularly poorly, according to a review of the firm’s performance. Meanwhile, from 2008 to 2011, the last full year Bowles was a director at Cousins, CEO pay increased by 73 percent. The next year, CEO compensation increased by another 276 percent.
Originally from Greensboro, N.C., Bowles earned degrees from the University of North Carolina and Columbia University.
The Pay Pals project relies on financial research conducted by the Center for Economic Policy and Research.
By Shane Shifflett, Jay Boice, Hilary Fung and Aaron Bycoffe