Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ah, the Commission

Back to the deficit commission today, alas.

Lots of good comments today on how silly the Conrad-Gregg deficit reduction commission is -- here's Bruce Bartlett, here's Matthew Yglasias, here's Jonathan Chait. They are all correct that the commission, if structured as planned (requiring a huge supermajority within the commission, and then supermajorities in the House and Senate) has no chance of producing anything. But to varying degrees, everyone seems to think this is a structure-of-Congress problem, and that the commission is just poorly structured because it doesn't solve that problem. Here's Ezra Klein's version:
Lawmakers have a peculiar resistance to admitting the problems afflicting their institution. There needs to be a Conrad-Gregg entitlement commission because bipartisanship has broken down. In response, Conrad and Gregg are setting a higher bar for bipartisanship? It's like trying to cure the flu by competing in a triathlon. You can respond to the breakdown of bipartisanship by making bipartisanship less necessary (say, by ending the supermajority requirement) or by trying to attack the roots of polarization.
Well, no. There is no need for a deficit commission, because Congress has demonstrated absolutely no problem controlling deficits when Congress wants to control deficits. It's just that when Republicans are in control of Contress and the White House, deficits go up because Republicans have an effective preference for high deficits. No, they don't quite say that explicitly, but their actual policy preferences are basically for stable or increasing spending and continually lower revenues -- and the low revenue preference is the intense one, the one that actually drives their actions.

When the majority party wanted to cut the deficit (under G.H.W. Bush, who was practically kicked out of the party for it, and then under Clinton), Congress succeeded. The choice by Republicans in this decade to slash taxes and radically increase spending was not a failure of Congressional procedures; it was a deliberate policy choice, successfully enacted.

One more time: commissions are a useful way to actually get things done (as opposed to getting a p.r. hit or kicking the can down the road) under one condition: that everyone agrees on what has to be done, but doesn't want to get the blame for doing it. That doesn't apply to the current situation, and therefore the commission is a waste of time, however it's structured.

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