Debt

Errors of Commissions

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Super committee!

Is there anything Washington likes better than to create bipartisan committees and commissions? At times it seems as if legislators view committees as a catch-all solution to large-scale policy problems; the debt-limit deal that passed the House last night is no exception. The deal designed to reduce the projected federal deficit in two stages: The first puts $900 billion in deficit-reducing cuts from the federal baseline into the 10-year budget pipeline. The second requires a joint Congressional committee—which some are labeling a "Super Committee"—to come up with an additional $1.5 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving. Both the House and the Senate will be required to vote on the recommendations put forth by the Super Committee by the end of the year, or trigger spending reductions that would heavily affect the defense budget, as well as Medicare.

But despite (or perhaps because of?) their popularity, committees and commissions are not terribly effective at solving the problems they're intended to address. As George Washington University political science professor Sarah Binder writes, "the general track record of commissions is not very good." And even though this one has several advantages over previous versions—including the trigger and the fast-track vote process—"prospects for success remain uncertain." This morning's New York Times reports a similar history of failure:

In the last seven decades, Washington has assembled more than a dozen blue-ribbon panels to grapple with fiscal problems. These include the Hoover Commission in 1947-49, the Grace Commission in 1982-84 and the Simpson-Bowles commission, created by President Obama last year.

The panels were often devised as a way to give political cover to policy makers to make unpopular changes. But in most cases, Congress ignored the proposals or deferred action.

Members of the Congressional deficit commission.

The fact that Congress uses committees for cover is what makes them such poor vehicles for reform. When Congress doesn't want to do something, it assigns a committee to do it instead—and then gives itself credit for having taken action. But assigning a committee to fix a problem that many members of Congress would like to avoid doesn't actually make legislators any more interested in addressing the problem. And so, when the time comes back around for Congress to act, they tend to find ways to avoid doing so. How effective can a Congressional committee be if Congress won't commit to it? 

In October 2010, former Congressional Budget Office director gave Reason three reasons why presidential commissions don't work.


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  1. Putting something to committee is a way to ensure nothing gets done. And, people, both parties (including Tea Partiers) really don’t want to DO anything about the debt (as evidenced by the feckless bill passing today), they just want the appearance of doing something.

    1. And, people, both parties (including Tea Partiers) really don’t want to DO anything about the debt (as evidenced by the feckless bill passing today), they just want the appearance of doing something.

      More or less.

      I suspect this whole thing is being kicked down the road a year or so in order that they can reopen the whole debate during the election of 2012. There is no real will to do anything substansive, but they want to keep the issue alive so they can posture and trade accusations of fiscal imprudence, wanting to take away Granny’s medicare, lacking Support For The Troops, etc.

      What drives me nuts is that the last 3 years of the Obama admin have been a nonstop sequence of Artificial Uncertainty Creation. They keep proposing Big Plans to reform X, Y, and Z… and all of the big plans like Obamacare, Financial Regulation, Energy Bill, etc. have done nothing but make markets *less* clear on what the rules will be going forward, and where real costs will lie. This whole bullshit commission is the same deal all over again. All they’ve agreed on is to push real decision making into the future again, and now we face another 4-5 months of not knowing where they’re going to bleed an extra trillion+ out of the budget.

      Congress has done more to drive this country to its knees than Al Qaeda ever could have.

  2. We can all agree that the Warren Commission was pretty effective, right?

  3. Suderman, I like the JLA pic but it still doesn’t make up for using a Hawk and Dove eatery pic instead of a Steve Ditko Hawk and Dove one yesterday.

  4. But is it a Blue Ribbon Committee?

  5. While the JLA has more heavy hitters (The Marvel equivalent would have to be the Illuminati) it was way less cool than it’s predecessor the JSA (Hourman and Starman on the same team? In the 40s? Sign me up!) and vastly less interesting than the Avengers.

    Also, WTF is up with Batman in that group? That shit always bothered me…seeing Batman take on Darkseid, who, y’know, has actual super powers.

    1. Joseph Sugarman and Associates came before the Justice League? It figures, he’s got his fingers in innovations all over the place.

  6. Commissions, committees, bureaucracies, agencies…

    There is apparently too much work to finish to do the work themselves.

  7. What is this, 1998? That pic is like 5-6 continuity reboots ago.

    Er… according to this sad nerd I know. Who is not me.

  8. At times it seems as if legislators view committees as a catch-all solution to large-scale policy problems

    That’s because a committee is a solution to the number one problem of legislators: having to take responsibility.

    1. This.

  9. Sometimes a Congressional commission does work. It did with the military base closing commission.

    You can always say that as much or more money would’ve been saved without the commission, but I don’t see the evidence of that. AFAICT, they’d’ve succeeded in closing far fewer bases without the commission, and even where they would’ve, it would’ve been at the price of some compensating pork.

    1. Gates commission ended the draft.

  10. The fellowship of the ring will do a horrible job.

    I recommend that they hire Petyr Baelish. The man can pull gold out of the ass of Tywinn’s ass.

  11. We call them QUANGOS in the UK – quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation…..and there are many of them.

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