Friday, November 19, 2010

What Commissions Can Do

Ezra Klein believes the deficit commission failed, because
The point of the Simpson-Bowles commission wasn't full employment for budget wonks. It was consensus...[i]t's a failure given the original goals of the project. Far from showing that we can all agree, it's proved that we can't.
I disagree!  Commissions can't achieve consensus.  That requires the normal political process of horsetrading and deals, and sometimes there's no deal to be had.

I'll go back to what I said when the commission got started.  These sort of commissions can do two things.  They can give cover to something that people want to do but don't want to take credit (or responsibility) for.  The classic example for that were the base closing commissions.  And they can give cover for people who don't want to do anything, but don't want to take credit (or responsibility) for that. 

In this case, the Democrats didn't want to act (then) on the deficit -- quite correctly in my view, but regardless, they didn't want to act, and for understandable political reasons they didn't want to say that they didn't want to act.  The purpose of the commission was to kick the can down the road until after the election.  In that, it basically succeeded.

Of course, it's possible that one or more of the people who supported the commission believed that it would achieve a consensus that otherwise didn't exist.  Perhaps even the president thought that.  If  so, they were foolish.  Commissions can't do that.


  1. I'm wondering if the U.S. is more commission-happy than other countries, and if so, whether this is yet further evidence of flaws in the "Madisonian" constitutional design -- which I now think, having read yet another account of the 1787 ConCon, should really be called the "Rutledgian" design, but that's another topic. In systems that usually wind up with coalition governments, presumably some of the deal- or consensus-making that people hope for from commissions here -- because the regular political system isn't giving it -- happens in the process of forming and maintaining the coalitions.

    Also and more importantly, other systems don't have fixed-term elections every two years. Ultimately, commissions or no, the hard questions get decided by the electorate; voters start electing governments that go in one direction rather than another. But our system works against that. I saw someone quoted somewhere a few days ago -- sorry I can't remember the source -- suggesting that the whole concept of "midterm" General Elections undermines this purpose of elections, because it means that two very different political factions can simultaneously claim mandates (or authority from the voters, or whatever you want to call it) for taking the country in vastly different directions. We see that right now, of course, with Obama still serving on the basis of one fairly recent election and Republicans taking over part of Congress, with a pledge to destroy him, on the basis of another.

    Not that I think the Framers really thought this all through, but I suppose one could defend the Madiso-Rutledian design in part on the theory that the Senate, with its staggered and (originally) insulated elections, would be a kind of permanent Bipartisan Commission on All Subjects, resolving within itself the conflicting impulses that arise from The People. Also they may have hoped -- I take this to be one way of interpreting Federalist 10 and 51 -- that the federal government itself would be a kind of Super-Commission, resolving the factionalism present in individual states into some broad national agreement, albeit on a limited range of questions.

    It's not that these things can never happen; a sustained period in which one party wins most of the elections, like the 20 years of the New Deal, does eventually produce a new political consensus for maybe the next generation or two. But that's what it takes. Otherwise, the system produces deadlock, both sides claim that the voters back them and can point to election results to prove it, and the result is another commission to try to do the job the political / legislative / electoral system is supposed to do but apparently can't.

  2. I rushed over here from Andrew Sullivan to see if you really said it.
    Folks, the base closure commission has full authority. Its decisions are final, no pussyfooting around. Congress knew how important that was for its task.
    The Cat Food commission is not at all like the base closure commission and I know of no others like it in government.


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