Congressional commissions generally serve one of two purposes. They either 1) provide political cover for lawmakers who want to achieve a goal but are afraid to act without an external push. Or 2) they are exactly the opposite—an excuse for politicians to duck crucial policy decisions.
This week, we saw one of each. First, a group of think tank budget experts proposed a new fiscal commission. And while sponsors were not explicit, their aim is #1. This idea is well intentioned, but, sadly, doomed to fail.
Then, on a party-line vote, the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee approved a fiscal commission as part of its long-delayed fiscal 2024 budget. Its fiscal plan promises to eliminate $16.3 trillion in projected deficits over the next 10 years by slashing spending (much of it unspecified) and assuming improbable sustained economic growth. It not only wouldn’t raise taxes, it reserves trillions of dollars for more tax cuts.
Instead of confronting the gory details of deficit reduction, the plan kicks much of the fiscal dirty work to a commission. Budget resolutions normally leave it to committees to fill in the blanks. But that never will happen this year.
The new fiscal year begins in less than two weeks. The House GOP is so bitterly divided that it has been unable to pass even one-year spending bills or even a stop-gap funding bill to keep the government from shutting down in less than 10 days. And a budget with top-line cuts as deep as the House GOP plan stands no chance in the Senate. An actual 10-year fiscal plan is a pipe dream.
Hence, a commission. Now, when asked by pesky reporters how exactly they would cut the deficit, lawmakers can answer, “I won’t prejudge the commission. Let’s wait for this bipartisan group to finish its work.”
It is, in other words, the classic congressional stall.
The House fiscal plan gives the commission no deadline, no enforcement authority, and not even a proposed membership structure. It doesn’t even give it a real deficit target to hit.
The budget resolution says only this: (see pgs 77-78) “The commission should undertake a comprehensive review of the United States’ current debt situation, including all drivers of U.S. debt. The commission would produce a report on its findings and separately make recommendations for legislative and administrative action…for addressing…entitlement spending, changes to taxes, and overall government spending.”
If they really want deficit cutting ideas, House Republicans could save time simply by going to the Congressional Budget Office website. In its Budget Options, it regularly lists hundreds of tax increases and spending cuts that lawmakers are free to choose from.
Or lawmakers could reread the report of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles commission that recommended $4 trillion in specific deficit reduction initiatives or the 2011 Domenici-Rivlin budget task force report. While these studies are more than a decade old, the components of federal spending haven’t changed much.
But like many other fiscal commissions, including President George W. Bush’s 2005 tax reform panel, their work was largely disregarded by lawmakers.
The House did consider a budget resolution roughly based on the Simpson-Bowles proposals. It got 38 votes. Even President Obama, who created the panel, ignored its report. Over time, Congress did adopt some of its specific proposals. But as a broad plan, it never was seen again.
Point is, Congress doesn’t need deficit reduction ideas. It needs, pardon the expression, courage. And a willingness to work in a bipartisan way to share the blame for decisions that surely will anger, well, nearly everyone.
And ultimately, that’s also the problem with the commission concept endorsed by 11 think tankers.
It seems to be a sincere effort to provide Congress and the president the political cover they need to make tough choices, especially with Social Security and Medicare. In theory, it would allow lawmakers to defend difficult votes by saying, “I didn’t want to raise taxes or cut spending but the commission made me do it.”
It worked 35 years ago with a base-closing commission, at least for a while. And 40 years ago, the Greenspan Commission drove Congress to make substantial changes in Social Security. Today’s budgeteers dream the idea might work again.
But those were a long time ago. And unlike today, Congress was highly motivated to enact reforms in both cases.
And that really is the point. Success by a budget commission requires only one condition: Congress’s willingness to act. If lawmakers don’t want to cut the deficit in meaningful ways, they won’t.
Even with enforcement mechanisms, a reluctant Congress always finds ways to dodge deficit targets. If all else fails, it simply waives its own rules. Eventually, ignoring commission recommendations becomes routine and most everyone forgets what they were about anyway.
If voters want real deficit reduction, they’ll need to elect politicians willing to set their own credible and achievable goals for both spending cuts and tax increases. And stick with them. Commissions are not only unhelpful, but they can easily become a distraction from the real work at hand.
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