Dismal Outlook for Deficit Commission

Dismal Outlook for Deficit Commission

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I wish it were otherwise, but I have very little confidence that the deficit reduction commission that is beginning its work this week will be able to accomplish much that is of any value.

My reasons?  First, very few presidential or congressional commissions have ever succeeded.  Even the so-called Greenspan commission that is sometimes cited as the epitome of what a commission can be and do, is increasingly understood to have failed in its efforts to find a solution to the Social Security problem that existed in the early 1980s.  It only looked like it succeeded because it was allowed to announce the back room deal that was reached privately by Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill.

The one notable exception - the series of Base Realignment and Closure Commissions that came up with list of military bases to shutter - had a very different mission than what the deficit reduction commission has been asked to do.  By the time BRAC came into being in 2005, Congress had already decided that some military facilities needed to be shut down and the commission was only asked to determine which ones they should be.  BRAC would not have succeeded had it first been asked to decide the equivalent of the far more comprehensive and politically charged issue the deficit commission is facing: "What is the future outlook for military spending given the state of the world?"

Second, the history of federal budget commissions is even worse than that of commissions in general.  They haven't just failed; they have failed miserably, unambiguously, and inextricably.  As someone who served on a budget-related commission in the 1990s, I know from first-hand experience that the goal of taking the politics out of the decision is impossible no matter how many of the members are not elected officials or are office holders not running for reelection.  They all have friends, colleagues, and associates who have a stake in the outcome; are members of political parties jockeying to use the commission for their own purposes; have clients, past clients, and future business prospects who will benefit or lose depending on what is decided, etc.

Third, by design, the members of this particular commission are overwhelmingly elected officials with political agendas of some kind.  In some cases they not only have already announced that they won't support one or more of the options that actually could have a positive impact on the budget outlook, they have sworn to the death that they will stand in the way of them being formally recommended.  Given that the commission's rules require a supermajority of its members to support a recommendation, this pretty much tells you every thing you need to know about its prospects for success.

Finally, in recent weeks the most telling thing about the prospects for the commission's accomplishing anything has been the way some of its supporters have been lowering the bar and changing the definition of success.  Instead of coming up with what it has been charged to do, that is, to agree on an acceptable deficit reduction plan, some have been saying that it will be a success if it does northing more than raise deficit reduction issues so they are better understood and the discussion may move forward.

That's nonsense; the issues are already understood.  What's missing, and what this commission is supposed to supply, is a plan for doing something about them.  Anything less will be a failure no matter how much we might want to believe something else.

Stan Collender is the author of the Capital Gains and Games blog and is a partner with Qorvis Communications LLC.