Deficit Commission Redux

It seems that in lieu of the statutory deficit commission that Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg wanted, they’ve instead reached some deal whereby Barack Obama will appoint a commission by executive order.

I’ve gotten some mail in my inbox from progressive groups trying to organize against this, but for the life of me I can’t see why. This just remains such a clunky concept that it’s hard to imagine anything coming of it:

The deal calls for an 18-member panel, with a dozen members named by Congressional leaders and six by the president, several Democrats said. The presidential appointees could be administration officials or outside experts, but it remained unclear whether all 12 Congressional appointees would be incumbent lawmakers or if some outsiders might be included.

For the commission’s recommendations to go to Congress for a vote, 14 of its 18 members would have to agree to them.

As best I can tell, the way this meeting will go is that the presidential appointees will say “let’s have a balanced package of tax hikes and spending cuts” then the ones appointed by congressional Republicans will say “no, no tax increases allowed.” Maybe one or two of the congressionally appointed Democrats will say Social Security should be off the table. And then we all go home.


If anyone’s worried about this idea it seems to be that it should be the professional deficit hawks. Nobody in congress actually wants to vote in favor of the kind of measures that would reduce the deficit. But many of them want to appear to be engaged in fiscally responsible activities. A “deficit commission” that doesn’t stand any realistic chance of accomplishing anything — it doesn’t even have a mandate as to what it’s supposed to accomplish — is an ideal solution to congress’ preference for doing nothing. This is not an instinct people should be encouraging. But instead we have the Peterson Institute’s David Walker saying “The announcement of an agreement to create a presidentially appointed fiscal commission that will report to the Congress and be assured a vote on its recommendations is a major step toward putting our nation’s financial house in order while protecting our social safety net programs.”

But how is it a major step? I don’t think it’s even a minor step. It’s more like deciding to hop in place on one foot. As Stan Collender explains a commission can help solve certain kinds of problems. Like if congress decides that it does want to close military bases, but doesn’t want to pick which bases to cut, it can create a commission to make the choice. But you have to be giving the commission some kind of reasonably defined goal, paired with congressional consensus about the need to meet that goal. Like if you said “we want to increase tax revenue by 1.5 percent of GDP — you guys come up with some ideas for meeting that goal” then you might get some good ideas. But a commission with no mandate and no political consensus behind it can’t do anything.