Congress Is Trying To Avoid Taking Responsibility for the Debt Crisis It Created

A fiscal commission might be a good idea, but it's also the ultimate expression of Congress' irresponsibility.


It's not quite accurate to say that no one in Congress wants to talk about the national debt and the federal government's deteriorating fiscal condition.

Indeed, during Wednesday morning's meeting of the House Budget Committee, there was a lot of talk about exactly that.

"Runaway deficit-spending and our unsustainable national debt…threatens not only our economy, but our national security, our way of life, our leadership in the world, and everything good about America's influence," said Rep. Jodey Arrington (R–Texas), the committee's chairman. He pointed to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections showing that America's debt, as a share of the size of the nation's economy, is now as large as it was at the end of the Second World War—and that interest payments on the debt will soon cost more than the entire military budget.

What's missing, however, is any sense that Congress is willing to turn those words into action. Just look at the premise of Wednesday's hearing: "Examining the need for a fiscal commission."

Yes, it was a meeting about the possibility of forming a committee to have more meetings about the possibility of doing something to address the problem. In fact, it was the second such committee hearing in front of the House Budget Committee within the past few weeks.

It seems like there ought to be a more direct way to address this. Like, say, if there was a committee that already existed within Congress charged with handling budgetary issues. A House Budget Committee, perhaps.

But instead of using Wednesday's meeting to seek consensus on how to solve the federal government's budgetary problems, lawmakers spent two hours debating a series of bills that aim to let Congress offload that responsibility to a special commission. What that commission would look like and how its recommendations would be handled will depend on which proposal (if any of them) eventually becomes law—and even that seems somewhat unlikely, with Democrats voicing their opposition to the idea throughout Wednesday's hearing.

To be fair, there are plenty of good arguments for why a fiscal commission might be the best way for Congress to fix the mess that it has made. It is an idea that's certainly worthy of being considered, even if the whole exercise seems a little bit over-engineered.

Romina Boccia, director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute, argues persuasively in her Substack that a fiscal commission is the best way to overcome the political hurdles that prevent Congress from taking meaningful action on borrowing and entitlement costs (which are driving a sizable portion of future deficits).

Boccia's preferred solution would allow the commission's proposals to be "self-executing unless Congress objects," meaning that legislators would have the "political cover to vocally object to reforms that will create inevitable winners and losers, without re-election concerns undermining an outcome that's in the best interest of the nation."

It's probably true that Congress itself is the biggest hurdle to managing the federal government's fiscal situation. Unfortunately, that's also the biggest reason to be skeptical: any decisions made by a fiscal commission will only be as good as Congress' willingness to abide by them.

Beyond that, it still isn't clear to me how a fiscal commission is going to be able to accomplish anything that the existing Budget Committees couldn't already do. There's no secret knowledge out there about how to reduce deficits that will only be unlocked by bringing together a collection of legislators and private sector experts, which is what most of the bills to create a commission propose doing. Congress should hold hearings, invite experts to share their views, draft proposals, vet those ideas through the committee process, and then put the resulting bills on the House floor for a full vote.

Shielding Congress from the electoral consequences of making poor fiscal decisions doesn't seem like it will improve the quality of budget-making. If anything, we need Congress to be held more accountable for this mess.

A $33 trillion national debt didn't come crashing out of the sky like an asteroid that couldn't be avoided. Congress chose this outcome, with each and every budget bill and emergency spending package passed over the last two decades. Nothing will change until Congress chooses differently. Shrugging off the obligation to budget responsibly is what caused this mess, but now lawmakers are eager to find yet another way to shirk responsibility for managing the country's finances.

"No responsible leader can look at rapid deterioration of our balance sheet, the CBO projection of these unsustainable deficits, and the long-term unfunded liabilities of our nation, and not feel compelled to intervene and change course," Arrington said Wednesday.

He's right, but that only draws a line under the contradiction. A responsible Congress would be working on a serious plan to get the deficit under control. Instead, the Budget Committee is working on proposals to avoid having to do that.