David Post: Copout commission gives Congress cover

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 3, 2011

Oh boy, another commission. For two months, the country stood at the brink of a financial calamity as Congress debated whether to pay its bills. Congress turned the debate into a political circus about reducing the deficit.
Everyone agreed that the deficit needs to be cut, but no one knew the way.
Finally, a compromise: a ěsuperî commission to figure it out.
Congress is good at commissions. All kinds of them.
In the 1960s, a commission determined that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy.
In the early 1980s, a commission determined that the coming wave of baby boomers would eventually retire and recommended an increase in Social Security and Medicare taxes. Congress then passed a law to do just that.
In the late 1980s, Congress came up with a new kind of commission idea to force it to make tough decisions when it lacked the political courage to do. The idea was that a commission would submit legislation that Congress could not amend and could vote only Yes or No.
This changed the shape of how legislation was passed. Normally, when the House and Senate pass bills, they differ somewhat, so staffers get together in the middle of the night and make amendments so that the two bills agree. A nasty little secret is that these compromises involve stuffing laws with stuff that each Congressman say is necessary for their vote. They say, for example, Iíll vote for this bill if it includes the money to build a bridge in my district. That stuffing is called pork or earmarks, of if youíre in the room, itís called ěcats and dogs.î (Iíve been there and done that.)
This new kind of commission is very powerful. It makes the tough calls and prohibits amendment, either on the floor or in a back room. No cats and dogs. That way, no member of Congress is responsible for any individual aspects of a law but only for the entirety. Both parties can then say, ěWe had no choice.î
This type of commission was used to close military bases. No members of Congress can vote to close a military base in their state. After all, military bases bring employment and tens of millions of dollars of economic impact. That commission made recommendations in several stages so that a minority of states were affected on each vote. As a result, a majority could vote close bases in other states, knowing that bases in their states would be on the chopping block next time.
Last year, Congress tried and failed to set up a budget commission, so President Obama created one. It had a terrific name: The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform ó The Moment of Truth. It is popularly referred to as the Simpson (a Republican)-Bowles (a Democrat) Commission or Bowles-Simpson, depending upon your political stripes.
It was a bipartisan commission that reached its goal of reducing the deficit to 60 percent of GDP. The problem was that the commissionís own members voted against it, so Congress never had to make that hard Yes or No vote. It was shelved with dozens of other commission reports to collect dust.
The new ěsuperî commission charged with trimming the budget deficit has three months to figure out how to cut at least $1.2 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. Itís going to be a war over a rather piddling amount. Itís about 10 percent of the projected budget deficits and less than 3 percent of total projected federal spending over that period of time. And most of it will be in the later years.
To force the super commission to reach agreement, Congress also put in motion automatic spending cuts that will reduce spending by $1.2 trillion, half defense and half other discretionary spending, if the commission canít pass its own recommendation. That way, no one will be happy, but everyone can say, ěNot my fault.î
Still, there are problems. The deficit reduction over 10 years is peanuts. The problem is still there.
History also teaches that when Congress is unhappy with what it did in one year, it unwraps it in a future year. For example, in the 1980s, Congress passed ěPaygo,î a law that required Congress to offset new spending with offsetting spending cuts or tax increases in the same amount. The net budget impact was zero. After several years, Congress decided those handcuffs hurt too much, so it undid it.
Will Congress cut a deal and live with it? Or undo it later? Or does it matter? There is always another solution.
Another commission!

David Post is a co-owner of the Salisbury Pharmacy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.