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The myth of commissions

The theory that bipartisan commissions will make all of our hard decisions for us relies on the experience of the Greenspan Commission in the ’80s, which put Social Security on a sounder footing. But according to Robert Ball, who helped run that commission, it was going to be a total failure -- until the president and the congressional leadership stepped into the breach:

In a sprightly account promoted by former staff members from both parties, Mr. Ball calls the Greenspan Commission a failure. As he tells it, only a willingness to compromise by the two principal antagonists of the time — Ronald Reagan, the Republican president, and Representative Thomas P. O’Neill, the Democratic House speaker — made it possible for Mr. Ball and a few others to salvage from the deadlocked panel a deal that raised payroll taxes and trimmed benefits enough to keep Social Security solvent.

“A commission is no substitute for principled commitment,” wrote Mr. Ball, who died two years ago at 93. He expected that growing deficits soon would spur talk of another such panel. “Above all,” he added, “we should not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of expecting miracles from another Greenspan Commission — by deluding ourselves into believing, mistakenly, that the first one was a great success.”

You can't govern this country if the party that doesn't control the White House simply refuses to give the party that does control the White House any accomplishments.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 19, 2010; 3:19 PM ET
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Mitch McConnell offered to dig in right away in Obama's first term of Social Security reform and pass a reform measure in bipartisan fashion. President Obama wanted to start with a partisan health care reform plan.

It was the Democrats who thought they could roll the Republicans and many of the American people with their large numerical advantages in the Congress. It was not the Republicans fault.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 19, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

As long as the United States retains sovereign control over the supply of fiat currency there is no risk of insolvency for Social Security or any other part of the federal government. There may be a risk of moderate or perhaps even severe (provided there is some sort of a supply-side shock) inflation, but that is not the same as saying the U.S. federal government will default on its obligations. Individuals like Ezra who consider themselves "progressive," should be extremely wary of using this fiscal responsibility meme to undermine a core progressive accomplishment like Social Security.

Posted by: nklein1553 | January 19, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

Calling planet lancediverson--

Mcconnell was ready to go all bipartisan on Social security because, wait for it, social security is actually fine until 2040 or so and only needs minor tweaking to get it past 2050. So of course the repiglicans are ready to cut benefits there. It is medicare and medicaid that are ready to go belly up by 2018, so of course Mitch and the repiglicans are ready to help by...MAKING HCR OBAMA'S WATERLOO. That's what I call bipartisanship.

Posted by: srw3 | January 19, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Lots of folks, Ezra included, are making the point that government can't work if it can't pass laws because of minority obstructionism carried to the limit. There seem to be two structural defects: the filibuster used to require a supermajority of 60 votes on even routine votes; and the "hold" system where one or a few Senators can prevent confirmation of Presidential appointees.

I agree that both are very bad when used as they have been in the current situation. But, I havent seen anything that sounds like a possible cure (except the silly proposition that somehow both the parties will agree to the filibuster if the changes won't take place for like 6 years out - they won't agree, and we need action in the next six years).

The cure IS at hand, but hardball must be played.

The "Hold": This is purely informal. It isn't even in the rules. It can be ended by fiat of the majority leader. He should do so, but perhaps allow a 30-60 day delay, but no more.

The filibuster: This is in the Senate rules, but not in law. There are two approaches, its seems. The majority can, anytime it wants, require the minority to talk 24 hours a day to keep the fibibuster going. It has a price. The majority must keep its members ready 24 hours a day to prevent the minority suggesting the absence of a quorum. Isn't the ability of the majority to act important enough to wear down the minority? The Dems don't appear to CARE enough to do this. No guts, no legislation.

The second approach on the filibuster is less well understood and discussed. It apparently rests on the ability to bypass the filibuster (permanently or temporarilty?) by a motion and a ruling from the chair. The GOP threatened this under Bush or Clinton, but it wasn't put into action, for unclear reasons, mostly cowardice it seems.

If the Dems can't rule, they need to clear the kitchen. If they want to rule, the chef must call the shots. Why isn't this happening?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | January 19, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse


Medicare and Medicaid are big problems as well. That is why I think Senate bill is a pretty good bill and should be passed.

The House bill is horrible. It builds too much on a horrible Medicaid system. If you knew anything about Medicaid, you would know that building too much on Medicaid just further perverts the way in which Doctors are paid and puts more of a burden on health insurance and Medicare.

The House Bill's revenue raisers are terrible. The highest incomes are going to be taxed at a 4.6% greater rate in two years when the Bush tax cuts expire anyway. There should not be a 5% surtax on top of that. That would cause capital flight and brain flight to other, more competitive, nations.

Posted by: lancediverson | January 19, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Not only that, but Social Security was near broke and did not have enough money to pay the promised cost of living adjustment the following year (if I recall my facts right). Social Security is in no such trouble this year - its financing scheme needs a course correction to keep it going smoothly, but we are not in a crisis - the trust fund can pay full benefits until 2040 or so. A similar commission is not warranted, and one has to wonder if the proponents are seeking to cut the benefits that were statutorily promised to workers.

Posted by: weiwentg | January 20, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

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