When the Government's Stumped, Create a Commission!

Why do we turn to bipartisan non-legislators to allay our fears?

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The cliche  The need for "commissions." When big problems need solving in America, politicians and pundits increasingly look not to the elected officials, but to experts appointed by elected officials to sit on a "commission." For example: In his column for The New York Times today, Tom Friedman wrote that "we would have put together 'The National Commission for 21st Century America,' with this assignment... what will America need to thrive in this world and how should we adapt our unique formula for success?" Then, just this weekend, Boehner proposed a plan that cut $1 trillion of the deficit over 10 years with a "commission" to cut more later.

Where it's from  Kenneth Kitts, author of Presidential Commissions and National Security: The Politics of Damage Control, points to the committee appointed to investigate how the Japanese could have surprised the United States at Pearl Harbor as the first commission tasked with doing the government's investigating for it. It has caught on since the 70s, says Ryan Grim at Politico, with biparistan commissions appointed through the years to look at Iran-Contra, traffic problems, healthcare, 9/11, and several months ago, the federal debt. Grim takes a cynical view of these affairs:

Beginning in the 1970s and increasingly in the last decade, Congress has taken a pass on handling many complicated or controversial issues — from Medicare to veterans’ benefits to war — preferring instead to appoint a handful of retired, moderate statesmen to make recommendations that it will promptly ignore.

If Congress today was tasked with drafting the Bill of Rights, said frequent Blue Ribboner and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, “they’d probably set up a commission.”

Why it's catching on  "What does it say about government," Grim asks, "that it now routinely outsources the governing process?" Well, it says that the government likes to ask expert commissioners to say the politically sensitive things that politicians themselves can't. So perhaps commissions are popular among leaders like Boehner this week since he has reportedly lost control of his own caucus. Maybe he needs some commissioners to urge the sensibility of compromising with Democrats.

Why else? Tom Friedman's proposed commission in many ways unintentionally parodies the reasons people turn to them in times of crisis. Let's look at the issues he says this "National Commission for 21st Century America" needs to take on. He lists "the hyperconnecting of the world, the intensification of globalization and outsourcing, the challenges of energy and climate and the growing automation of the work space that is rapidly increasing productivity with fewer workers." Wait--you left out penal code reform, tax code reform, and Puerto Rican statehood! That's a lot of large issues for one commission. But who can blame Friedman? With polls showing that virtually everyone disapproves of Congress during this debt debate and with Americans in fear of total economic meltdown, don't blame Tom Friedman for looking outside of the normal governing bodies to solve all of the nation's huge long-term problems. That, ultimately, seems to be the point of a nebulous commission and the reason it is as popular this week as ever--it's a place to put all our anxiety in times of crisis.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.