Proposal: A National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform

Most prominent economists and the sensible political middle ground in Washington agree that the federal government must eventually address its long run fiscal problem; but they also know that it is not possible to begin to eliminate the budget deficit if tax increases and entitlements cuts are ruled out. The Bowles-Simpson Commission in December made specific proposals, many of which are the sort that we are going to need — all of them highly unpopular….proposals like raising the retirement age, limiting tax expenditures, and raising the gas tax. Many reasonable-sounding editorialists and commentators have said recently that President Obama ought to be brave enough to lead, by coming out in favor of unpopular measures such as those in the Commission’s report. Supposedly the American public is mature enough to rally around such a candid position.

I think not. (Whenever a candidate promises to “give the American people a government as good as they deserve,” I can’t help thinking, “no, no; don’t do that!”) If Obama were to come out in support of the report’s specific proposals, his opponents would reliably and successfully attack him for wanting to raise taxes and “hurt seniors.” As the White House puts it, this would poison the well: After these attacks, the country would be a step farther from coming to grips with the problem, not a step closer.

I have a proposal. President Obama should send to Congress a bill to establish a bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The body would be chaired again by Bowles and Simpson, who would be able to move more quickly this time, refining their previous proposals. (Ideally they would drop the tax cuts for the rich, the inadequate detail on medical costs, and the pipe dream that spending can be brought down to a lower level of GDP than where Reagan had it.) One hopes that a majority of the Commission members, from both parties, would agree to join hands and come out together in support of a good package of fiscal measures. (Of course, grandstanders like Paul Ryan will again vote no.)

How could yet another commission solve the problem? Why would it succeed when the first Bowles-Simpson Commission failed? Obama should include in the legislation a provision that the recommendations of the Commission would automatically go to Congress for an up-or-down vote. Those knowledgeable in the ways of Washington have long known that this is the way to solve the problem, by giving individual politicians in each party some protection against the attacks from opportunistic critics in the opposite party.

Does the idea of a bipartisan ex ante agreement to promote the Commission’s findings, before the gory details are visible, sound familiar? President Obama pushed for precisely such legislation in Congress in January 2010. Among the sponsors of the bill had been John McCain and five other Republican Senators. But when they saw that Obama was for it, the Republican sponsors switched sides and voted the other way. (They were for it before they were against it.) The bill was defeated 53-46. Obama, in February 2010, was then forced to create the Bowles-Simpson commission by Executive Order instead, knowing full well that without the critical congressional pre-commitment the Commission was unlikely to be able to break partisan logjams. And so it was.

Why did these supposedly “fiscal conservative” sponsors vote against the bill? So far as I know, nobody has ever offered any explanation other than the obvious one: they would rather make political hay out of trying to pin unpopular tax increases or medicare cuts on Obama in the 2010 congressional elections, than to make progress on the deficit. As Alan Simpson (R - Wyo) said, their purpose was “to stick it the President.” Well, they got their 2010 congressional elections. So let’s try the same proposal again now. Maybe it would pass this time. More likely it would fail, for the same political reasons. But at least if the Republicans again refused to support the commission when it is an ex ante abstraction, then it would be hard for anyone to deny that they would be sure to oppose the White House if it were to support the specific recommendations after they became known. The exercise should at least clarify who is serious about necessary reforms and who is more interested in political gamesmanship.

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