Three Reasons a Deficit Commission is Doomed

Washington is a strange city. Congress is stacked with politicians who already spend plenty of hours thinking about and disagreeing over public policy. But somehow, we think that putting them in a room and telling them "You're a commission!" will provoke a chorus of kumbaya, no matter the issue. It's as if politicians think they can trick their friends into agreeing to all sorts of politically difficult compromises by saying the magic word, "panelist."

I've outlined a couple reasons why I think a deficit commission is doomed. But here are three more:


1) Some Commissions That "Worked" Really Didn't. The Greenspan Commission, which is often held up as the apotheosis of commissions, didn't actually work. According to this New York Times article, the commission designed to fix Social Security in the early 1980s was deadlocked before Reagan privately brokered a deal with House Speaker Tip O'Neill to raise payroll taxes and trim benefits. To be sure, the commission provided the political cover for two enemies to strike a compromise. But that means that at best it was a convenient facade rather than an effective policy-brainstorming tool.

2) Commissions Can't Find Solutions If We Don't Agree on the Problems. Another example often cited as evidence of a commission's mystical powers is the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. That panel met when Congress decided it needed to close excess military bases. But as Stan Collender writes, "it start(ed) with an agreement that bases and other DOD facilities should be cut. The only question, therefore, is which ones." There is no analogous agreement on Capitol Hill that taxes should be raised, or that Medicare benefits should be cut, or the Social Security needs tinkering. There is only the obscure fear that our deficit needs to be a smaller number.

3) Commissions Won't Work Now, Anyway. Remember the "Gang of Six" charged with guiding health care reform? That was like a lot like a commission in that it was a group of politicians sitting a small room together for a long time, contributing to the illusion that the crucial criterion in any political compromise is a compact seating arrangement. The Gang of Six produced nothing except anxiety and the lie that health care reform was an issue within the scope of bipartisan compromise. Its leader Max Baucus emerged with his own health care bill three months later, which unnecessarily delayed the HRC process by a quarter-year.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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