This week, the Senate is expected to defeat a proposal by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) to form a commission charged with crafting ways to reduce the country’s long-term deficits. But the commission idea is not dead!
Instead, it looks like the Obama administration will create a commission by executive order, which will be “granted broad authority” to come up with a series of deficit reducing “changes” to the tax code and spending programs that Congress would then consider. But if you thought Gregg would be pleased with this development, you’d be wrong:
It’s a fraud among anyone interested in fiscal responsibility to claim an executive order could structure something that would actually lead to action.
This is pretty amusing coming from Gregg, whose “precedent for success” in this matter is the 1983 Greenspan Commission. According to Gregg, the Greenspan Commission was “the catalyst that drove the process” behind that year’s fix for Social Security. But the Greenspan Commission was created by executive order.
Gregg is a good example of what CAP’s Michael Linden is calling “deficit peacocks”: lawmakers who “like to preen and call attention to themselves, but are not sincerely interested in taking the difficult but necessary steps toward a balanced budget.” For instance, while Gregg is criticizing those he deems not sufficiently “interested in fiscal responsibility,” he’s voting to cut taxes for the heirs of multi-millionaires. As the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put it, “if you want to hear politicians croon utter nonsense about the debt with their fingers crossed behind their backs, please listen to Sen. Judd Gregg.”
At the same time, the administration’s design for a commission is about the same as Conrad and Gregg’s. It would involve 18 commissioners — six appointed by Congressional Democrats, six by Republicans, and six by the administration, with the understanding that the administration would name at least two Republicans — and 14 of the 18 would need to agree before their proposal made it to the floors of Congress. So the odds of anything productive coming out of this process are exceedingly small (which means that, as Matt Yglesias pointed out, there’s little point in wasting a lot of energy opposing the commission’s creation).
The only way a commission like this can possibly work is if it’s given a concrete goal and told to find ways to achieve said goal. As Stan Collender pointed out, that’s why base closing commissions work: everyone agrees that bases need to be closed, but they don’t want to decide which ones. But even with an explicit budget goal, I don’t see Republicans on the commission agreeing to anything that even remotely resembles a tax increase, without which budget balance is impossible. It’s far more likely that the commission bogs down into gridlock, and if a solution does come around, it will be because of some agreements that are crafted outside of the commission structure — just like with the Greenspan Commission.