One of Washington, D.C.’s great time-honored traditions for elected politicians who want to avoid risking their positions by making hard choices is to establish a commission to do it for them.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say a military base in your congressional district or state has become hopelessly obsolete. The money it would take to modernize it is way out of your Representative’s and Senators’ ability to deliver. Keeping it going is a waste of money, which, for them, is money that they could spend differently to benefit their reelection.
But calling for the base to be closed means getting blamed for losing all the jobs tied to it. That would guarantee losing what they care about most: their next election. How can the problem get fixed without putting their position at risk?
If they’re like most politicians, what they need is a commission. A group of people chartered to achieve a politically unpopular outcome, like the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. People who will take the blame that would be theirs if they had any real courage. Commissions provide the equivalent of political fire insurance for politicians.
We’re now reaching that point with the U.S. government’s fiscal situation. The federal budget process is broken, and the government’s path with its excessive spending is unsustainable. Because they are, calls for a fiscal policy commission are growing louder.
How would a successful budget commission to fix the U.S. government’s failing fiscal policies work?
Writing at Reason, Veronique de Rugy explains how a successful fiscal commission would work:
At the heart of the commission’s charge must be a commitment not just to reduce some deficits but to put the government back on a sustainable track. As my colleague and former CBO Director Keith Hall convinced me, the commission will fail if it doesn’t have a clear target from the start. Then it will need to be both transparent and accountable by operating in the open, making its findings and deliberations available to the public, and thereby fostering an informed debate about the choices facing the nation.
The commission could be established through legislation mandating that Congress consider any resulting proposals on a fast-track basis, with limited opportunities for amendment and delay. Such mechanisms have been used successfully in the past with military-base closure commissions and trade agreements, and they could be adapted to the task of fiscal reform.
The commission’s work would inevitably confront entrenched interests and face stiff opposition from those who benefit from the status quo. It would therefore need to be composed of individuals capable of rising above partisanship and special interests to act in the nation’s best interest. Members of Congress might themselves want to sit on the commission, though few of them fit these requirements, considering who got us into this mess in the first place.
In short, a fiscal commission represents a pragmatic approach to a problem that has for too long been mired in politics and short-term thinking. It offers a pathway out of the fiscal morass, provided it is empowered to act, and its recommendations are taken seriously.
For Congress, which has shirked its responsibilities, the commission offers a chance to redeem itself by enabling reforms that might otherwise never see the light of day. In this way, the commission does not usurp Congress’ role but rather complements it, providing the impetus needed for genuine fiscal reform.
Washington, D.C.’s politicians are rapidly approaching the point where they can no longer get away with kicking the can down the road instead of making hard choices. They still don’t want to, so setting up a budget commission will become necessary. It’s only a question of when. Sooner would be better.
This article was published by The Beacon