Yesterday President Obama issued an executive order creating a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The idea that a commission independent of partisan politics can help solve intractable political problems draws much of its inspiration from the success of the various BRAC military base closing commissions. Unfortunately, some of the key ingredients that made BRAC successful are missing from the President’s plan.
First, the president’s commission will be largely composed of sitting members of Congress. BRAC’s membership, on the other hand, included only former members of Congress and former DoD officials and military leaders. The idea being that they did not have political careers to protect. A deficit commission would benefit from the same instinct.
Second, as spelled out in the executive order, the mission of the president’s commission is “identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.” Identifying policies is too amorphous a charge to result in anything meaningful. The BRAC commissions, by contrast, were given a very clear and discrete mission: identify military bases to be closed or realigned.
Once Congress voted to create BRAC, there was no question that military bases would be closed. On the need for closures they could all agree. The only question that remained, and which was the charge of BRAC, was which ones to close. That was the politically difficult quandary that was delegated to BRAC.
A proper role for a new deficit reduction commission truly inspired by BRAC would be do identify which federal programs to cut or reform. That is the politically tricky question that a commission can help solve. Asking a deficit commission to “identify policies to improve the fiscal situation” is the same as creating a base commission and asking it what we should do about a glut of military bases. There’s nothing tricky about that.
Finally, the president’s new commission has no teeth. All it can do is issue a final report. Congress is under no obligation to do anything about it and it likely won’t. After all, it’s not for lack of ideas about how the deficit can be constrained that Congress has done nothing. The problem is politics.
The new commission will likely be a replay of the late 80’s National Economic Commission. Created by Congress, it was composed of blue-ribbon experts from both sides of the aisle and was similarly charged with developing a plan to reign in the deficit. It never reached consensus and it issued two reports along party lines in large part because Republican members would not consider tax increases.
However one may feel about the need for tax increases, the reality is that Republicans are unlikely to accept a commission that could potentially recommend them. Better to use a commission structure for what it is best suited—making tough decisions that members of parties agree need to be made but which they are not willing to make. In this case that means deciding which federal programs should be cut or reformed. This is not to say that tax increases should not be considered, but simply that it will likely be impossible to delegate that task to a commission.