Errors of Commissions


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.