Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Commissions Can Do

I have a few items to catch up on, and one of them is this post by Stan Collender, which he titles "The Greenspan Commission Failed."  The story he relates, however, doesn't match the header.  What we learn is that the Greenspan Commission (on "fixing" Social Security in the 19080s) didn't actually come up with anything; what actually happened is that Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan
neither of who were members of the commission, privately agreed to a deal.  The Greenspan Commission was pushed to take credit for it so that it looked more bipartisan-partisan and less of a backroom deal that was really the case.
Seems to me that the commission worked!  Oh, it didn't resolve a problem that was otherwise unresolvable; commissions can't do that.  What they can do, however, is to deflect responsibility in cases in which elected officials want to do something without taking the credit or blame for it.  That's the case for the base-closing commission, and it seems that's the story with the Greenspan Commission as well. 

Of course, there's a second thing that commissions can do, the mirror image of that function: in cases in which politicians don't want to do something (and don't want the credit or blame for not doing something), then appointing a commission is a way to substitute the appearance of action for real action.

On the deficit, my guess is that many but not all Democrats want a solution (higher taxes, Medicare savings, Pentagon reform and savings) but aren't willing to take the "credit" for it -- so they want a solution commission.  The Republicans, however value lower taxes over deficit reduction and aren't really in favor of steeper spending cuts, so they want a kick the can commission.  Unless those things change, there's no chance of a bipartisan commission that will actually produce solutions.

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