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Henry Aaron is not wrong, but the analysis he offered earlier this week is incomplete. Yes, commissions won't matter in the absence of political will. Yes, it wasn't the Greenspan Commission that devised the steps Congress took in 1983 to strengthen Social Security but, rather, aides to President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill who privately reached agreement after the commission failed.
But Aaron blames political will alone for our failure on the deficit front. That's half the story, perhaps not the most important half. In Washington, major legislative action results from: (1) political will, with the parties finding consensus as with tax reform in 1986 and welfare reform in 1996, or (2) crisis, or the fear that one is imminent.
What drove the 1983 Social Security fix? Fear that Social Security would go broke in the coming months and senior citizens would blame the elected leaders of that day. What drove President Clinton's 1993 deficit-cutting deal with congressional Democrats? Fear of ignoring the 19 percent of Americans who voted for deficit crusader Ross Perot a year earlier and of ignoring a shaky bond market that sought deficit action. Nor is fear-induced action peculiar to fiscal issues. In early 1947, influential Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg reportedly advised President Truman to "scare the hell out of the American people" if he hoped to convince Congress to adopt his Cold War proposals.
So, yes, political will would be nice. But, absent a political or economic crisis or the fear thereof (such as, grassroots revulsion at Washington's red ink to which a Perot-like figure gives voice, or a U.S. confrontation with our lenders in Beijing that sends interest rates skyrocketing, the dollar tumbling, or inflation soaring), we have no reason to believe that consensus will emerge. Alas, not enough elected officials yet fear the deficit. Here, then, is what we should hope for: a crisis that's big enough to instill the requisite fear in our leaders to act, but not so big as to wreck our economy, our politics, or our future in the process.
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Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.