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Sins of commission

If you're one of the literally tens of people who've been anxiously waiting for the president to sign an executive order forming a fiscal commission with little actual power and a slim likelihood of working, then yesterday was your lucky day, as the president put pen to paper and formed the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. OMB Director Peter Orszag explains how it will work:

With members appointed by the leaders from both political parties in both houses of Congress as well as the President, the Commission’s objective is to put forward proposals to balance the budget excluding interest payments on the debt (the so-called primary budget) by 2015 and to meaningfully improve the long-term fiscal outlook. Meeting the medium-term target means that by the middle of this decade, we would be paying for the operations and programs of the federal government and not increasing our debt relative to the size of the economy; under current projections, the result would be stable overall deficits (including interest payments) hovering around 3 percent of GDP. The Commission will also examine changes to address the growth of entitlement spending and the gap between the projected revenues and expenditures of the Federal government over the long term.

To report out a recommendation, the Commission would need 14 out of 18 votes, ensuring that any report will have bipartisan support. The Commission will issue its recommendations by December 1, 2010, and the leaders of both the Senate and the House have assured us that they will bring these recommendations to a vote before the end of the current Congress.

To say a word more on the membership, there will be six members appointed by congressional Democrats, six members appointed by congressional Republicans and six members appointed by the president. As of now, only two appointments have been made: The president has named former senator Alan Simpson (R) and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles to lead the commission. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have pledged to bring the final recommendations to a vote, but they're not exempt from the filibuster or other efforts to procedurally impede the package.

There's nothing magic about a commission. Like a congressional committee, it puts together legislation that Congress later votes to accept, reject or delay. And as of now, there's simply no reason to believe that the votes exist for any serious compromise. Republican leaders, for instance, are arguing that the commission simply shouldn't consider tax increases, which makes a deal impossible. That was their rationale for filibustering the very formation of a commission, which is why Obama had to do this through an executive order.

But elites still like the idea, in part because elites can see the outlines of a deal that elites would make. Greg Mankiw for instance, thinks Republicans should demand that the commission include a value-added tax and a carbon tax. I would support that. The problem is that the Republican Party opposes both policies, and there's no reason to believe they're going to change their minds.

To date, the best argument I've heard in favor of the commission is that it's a good insurance policy. If the bond markets do turn on a dime and the federal debt becomes a crisis-level problem, then we've already got a process that we can use to address the problem. But outside an external crisis that would force action one way or the other, there's little reason to believe this commission's final package will be any more successful than the legislation to create this commission was.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 19, 2010; 12:22 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Comments

This is all simply a vehicle to provide Obama & Pelosi cover for committing to structural deficits with new grand entitlements by appointment of THEIR people on the Democrats side.

They know their appointees will claim their overspending is no big deal, and just ignore anything Republicans on the committee say, afterall they are simply obstructionist who always say no.

A gimmick...a prop to point to as trying to be bi-partisan, while continuing on the unprecedented ridiculous partisan path.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

I'm having trouble balancing my home budget....is it constructive for me to tell my kids they need to raise the price for a glass of lemonade this summer to $1,000 a glass?

That will be what all the Democrats on this committee will recommend.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Ezra for you candid reporting on this. Sometimes I accuse of being a radical, the the candor you use in describing this obvious gimmick proves you are a pragmatist.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 19, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I doubt Bond Market is so stupid.

When you have JJ Cramer shouting from roof top how market called 'bluff' of Volcker rule (when JPM bought RBS unit which was to be forbidden by Volcker rule); Market knows very well when there are not enough votes in Congress.

Those who handle Trillions of Dollars better be able to count 'dim witted, dumb heads' who populate Congress.

I do think Obama Admin idea of executive commission is a stupid idea. He is playing same games he vowed not to succumb to (and hence we see people running away from him in droves). Obama should have spent all his political capital in getting the real Congressional Commission. If GOP does not want that - fight the Nov election on that issue. Man, if a neophyte like me need to tell you that it is the burning issue Americans care about or Market bothers about; on which planet this Admin is? Pandora?

Because now with this commission, Obama will not be able to make it as the political issue.

Ergo, insincerity of Obama and really he does not bother about 'deficit'. It is all showmanship.

For a guy who garnered votes on 'change in Washington'; this is yet another dramatic 'climb down'. What a disgrace.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 19, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

"Greg Mankiw for instance, thinks Republicans should demand that the commission include a value-added tax and a carbon tax."

Wouldn't it be shorter and more accurate to say Greg Mankiw thinks that the Republicans should commit political suicide? Because that's what either of those things would be. Both would just be two shots, straight to the head, and I don't think the fact that Ezra Klein thinks they are good ideas would mollify the base or win over the Tea Party folks.

Indeed, the best case scenario would for Democrats to bring them both up and push really hard for them, so Republicans could use them as cudgels to beat the Democrats' electoral chances severely about the head and shoulders.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 19, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

In case of an emergency where action was forced on the President, would the answer be a bipartisan plan on the books, or the preferred plan of whoever was in charge at the moment? It would be more profitable I think to come up with a secret emergency plan that did what you really wanted. The bipartisan cover doesn't matter anymore so why make concessions? Implement what you think is most likely to work well and be done with it.

Are we serious about 2015? In what manner can you reform entitlements so spending is less in 2015 AND the proposal can pass?

Posted by: windshouter | February 19, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

How about we let them do some research and vote out a report, or sucumb to the same political dysfuction as the rest of the town, before we declare it a failure. No, there is not likely to be anythign truly radical coming out of this, but it does make for nice cover for the Prez if the ycan produce something with tangible results and the Repubs decry it for not being exactly what they want.

Lets wait and see, hmm?

Posted by: EricS2 | February 19, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Reid and Pelosi should appoint a majority of Republicans. The Republicans want to sit on the sidelines and take potshots at anything the Democrats propose that might actually help, while making no meaningful proposals of their own. They want to be part of the process? OK, make them part of the process.

Posted by: tl_houston | February 19, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

********
Indeed, the best case scenario would for Democrats to bring them both up and push really hard for them, so Republicans could use them as cudgels to beat the Democrats' electoral chances severely about the head and shoulders.
********

Kevin, you know it will happen. David Brooks will have a column about it, and the next day it will be the talking point...

Posted by: rpy1 | February 19, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

What's to stop the Republicans from naming 6 extremely conservative and partisan people to the commission? Wouldn't that prevent any real solutions from coming out of the commission, being that any recommendation needs 14/18 votes?

Posted by: peterjwu | February 19, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Erza would support a tax on your taxes.

Posted by: obrier2 | February 19, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

A Commission can establish an anchor, against which further political ideas and compromises can be measured. It could also provide some marginal political cover for those compromises. It won't work magic, but it could help reach a tipping point in future negotiations, overcoming potential deadlock.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 19, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I bet that if their was a crisis and we didn't act that it would be bad for the economy, and right now what is bad for the economy is bad for the Democrats. So even if there is a crisis, we can expect Republicans to do whatever they can to prevent any solutions.

Posted by: zosima | February 19, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

"If you're one of the literally tens of people who've been anxiously waiting for the president to sign an executive order forming a fiscal commission with little actual power and a slim likelihood of working, then yesterday was your lucky day,"

That's pretty funny.

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 19, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

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