Commission Overload

September 28th, 2011 at 9:04 am

I had a quick negative reaction to Peter Orszag’s piece about ways to get around government dysfuntionality.   But that was mostly from the misleading title—most of the piece argues for better automatic stabilizers—programs that kick in to help people when the economy hits a recession;  fiscal triggers—rules that enforce deficit reduction (kind of the opposite of the stabilizers); and independent commissions.

I’m a huge stabilizer fan but it’s that last part about which I’m not nearly so sure.  In fact, I’ll admit it: I don’t like commissions.

OK, I should dial that back a bit: Peter endorses procedures like the base-closing commissions of the 1980s and the Independent Payment Advisory Board created under health care reform.  In both cases, they’re structured to wring inefficiencies out of the economy (to close underutilized military bases and reduced ineffective health care spending) that Congress would tend not to touch for political reasons.

But it’s an awfully slippery slope, no?  I’m with the NYTs Catherine Rampell on this one:

“…expert panels can be useful. But…delegating policy authority to technocratic panels is more problematic when dealing with larger economic matters that involve social value judgments, like austerity measures and tax reform.

These policy areas may sound like dry academic subjects. But they are thoroughly infused with, and ultimately shaped by, moral beliefs.

There are, after all, infinite combinations of spending cuts and tax increases that can add up to the same bottom line. Deciding what should get trimmed and what taxes should be increased or decreased involves questions of favoritism, welfare, compassion, fairness and all sorts of other subjective judgments not answerable by the “laws” of economics.”

That’s one problem.  The other is that when you constantly kick tough calls to commissions, you amplify cynicism about government.  Too often in this town, when you want to show you care about something that you don’t really want to do anything about (or, less snarkily, you’re not ready to do anything about), you kick it to a commission.

I haven’t seen polls on this, but I’ll bet most people’s reaction to “so, we created a commission to study the issue and make binding recommendations, etc.” is “those guys just can’t do their jobs.”

The Bowles/Simpson deficit reduction commission is an interesting example.  They came up with a lot of good ideas (and some bad ones too, like a revenue cap of 21%) that were ultimately adopted as part of the President’s new plan.  But I’m really not sure what was gained by kicking this to the commission last year—on the one hand, you could make a case that this was a good way to get the ideas into the debate.  On the other, it just muddled and clouded things up.

Not sure which way I fall on that, but I think that latter.

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7 comments in reply to "Commission Overload"

  1. Tom says:

    On technical issues, such as which treatments are more effective, clearly there is a role for an independant payments advisory board.

    On non-technical issues, such as ‘I want to rant about cutting spending but want to pass the buck and not be be seen cutting popular programs’, that is wimporama 101.

    As far as ‘we are going to put in some really unpopular stuff that only takes effect if we don’t do some other really unpopular stuff, and by the way we have no idea if any of this is even possible, we’re just pulling it out of our ass’, that is just super. :p

  2. Procopius Furioso says:

    Aside from the marginally useful demonstration that Alan Simpson suffers from early senile dementia, the Cat Food Commission served mainly to sow confusion about Social Security and Medicare.Oh, I almost forgot, it also demonstrated that President Obama is actually a Republican somewhat to the right of Ronald Reagan (actually about the same as Andrew Mellon) and was the first indication that he really believes that destroying Social Security would be a good thing.

  3. Nhon Tran says:

    In his article in Foreign Affairs titled “Is Government Too Political?”(1997)Prof Alan Blinder wrote the following abstract for the article: “The government is pushed and pulled by interest groups and partisan politicking, often at the public’s expense. Washington could learn from independent agencies like the Federal Reserve. Shift responsibility for things like tax policy from the politicians to the experts; besides knowing more, they work in a politics-free zone. Tossing the ball to the technocrats won’t weaken democracy – Congress can always take it back – but it will produce better policy.”
    (Prof Blinder was on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and then Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federeal Reserve).
    Nhon Tran

  4. Jim says:

    Isn’t the Federal Reserve little more than a non-elected commission designed to circumvent democracy?

  5. abben maguire says:

    One reason to kick things to commission, emphasized in Orszag’s article but not here in your response: congressional gridlock. Commissions are usually empowered to act. It’s true that a politician who kicks something to a commission may come off as insufficiently motivated to force a solution through the gridlock.

    But the flip side is that such a person cares about rolling up their sleeves and getting something done, namely by circumventing gridlock.

  6. CEK says:

    You could have added that commissions cannot be nonpolitical and impartial as long as they are made up of human beings. Since the members of boards and commissions have their own ideas and values, they will be chosen carefully by some elected person or body, making sure they share the political opinions of those who select them. So the decisions may as well be made by elected officials.

  7. Procopius Furioso says:

    What was gained by creating the Cat Food Commission last year was cover for President Obama to turn to his heartfelt desire to cut Social Security. The senile Alan Simpson, through his ignorance of the reality of Social Security, greatly advanced the theme of “entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.” Ever since, that has been the recurring phrase in the corporatist media. “Entitlements” are always “Medicare and Social Security,” even though they are very different. You never see any Democrat, much less President Obama, pushing back against that theme. They are happy to conflate “entitlements like Medicare and Social Security” as something bad, contemptible, disgusting, something to be swept away. I’ve been astonished and disheartened by the speed with which the Democrats have accepted the lie that Social Security is in serious financial trouble, and especially that it has anything to do with the deficit. This is just not true, but has become common wisdom through the constant repetition of “entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.”