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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.