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What Orszag took from Congress


Matt Bai had a smart piece yesterday arguing that Peter Orszag "promoted and carried out an effort by the White House to pry away from Congress some of the responsibility for making hard decisions, especially when it comes to the budget." As examples, Bai mentions the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which can make substantial reforms of Medicare even in the absence of specific congressional approval, the president's fiscal commission and the modified version of the line-item veto that the Obama administration has proposed.

But this isn't about Orszag himself, or even the Obama administration. Congress passed IPAB into law, thus taking power away from itself. Various members of Congress proposed a fiscal commission ("The inability of the regular legislative process to meaningfully act on this couldn't be clearer," wrote Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg), and when they couldn't pass it over a Republican filibuster, agreed to serve on a fiscal commission housed in the executive branch.

When Congress doesn't work, the result isn't inaction, but non-congressional forms of action. Power is devolved to other actors who don't suffer from the same dysfunctions and impediments. But those actors tend to be less accountable. This is why the Founders designed a Congress capable of taking votes and deciding issues, rather than a Congress with a supermajority requirement that would naturally lead to gridlock. Congress is where decisions were supposed to be made. But a 41-59 filibuster is not the same as a "no" vote. It's not a decision. It's the minority keeping the majority from making a decision. And so the majority often turns that decision over to someone else. Orszag and the Obama administration -- not to mention Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve -- have simply been part of that trend.

Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 29, 2010; 10:23 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Matt Miller savages the deficit commission


--"Congress is where decisions were supposed to be made."--

Rubbish, Klein. In a free society, decisions are made by individuals in the course of the conduct of their own lives.

Posted by: msoja | July 29, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Who let the trolls in? Klein was clearly refering to divisions of federal power. Now run along and let mom and dad use the computer.

--And now a word from the grown-ups. Congress is fine in giving up its power, as long as that means it can give up responsibility. Having the executive branch make tough decisions means that they can rail against those decisions come election time without being held responsible for changing them. The GOP has been using Roe v Wade for decades in the same way--powerless to change a Supreme Court decision, but running as if they could.

Posted by: ciocia1 | July 29, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Actually, Congress may not be able to give up much more of its power... there are some interesting opinions on that particular topic floating around at the moment.

Posted by: rmgregory | July 29, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

msoja, that may be the most inane comment I've seen here. Well, that's a bit hyperbolic. But still, what a dumb thing to say.

Posted by: MosBen | July 29, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Don't forget the big one. Congress' inaction on climate change is going to result in the EPA taking a lot of action on the issue, and probably in ways that are imperfect for everyone involved.

Posted by: yawgmoth6139 | July 29, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Conrad-Gregg did not fail because of some Republican filibuster. Instead Republican Senate leadership pushed it right up to the last but one second. McConnell pushed Obama to support it at both the Fiscal Responsibility Summit and the Health Care Summit, and its counterpart Cooper-Wolf SAFE was most enthusiastically pushed by the Blue Dogs. Conrad-Gregg failed when it was proposed to be attached to the Debt Limit increase bill for one reason-the Baucus Social Security Amendment which came up immediately before the vote on Cooper-Gregg.

The Baucus Amendment removed any changes to Social Security from the proposed up or down vote on Commission recommendations arising out of Conrad-Gregg, instead those changes would have to go through normal order. Nobody had the nads to vote against Social Security directly with the result that the Baucus Amendment passed with (I believe) 97 votes, at which point Republican leadership simply pulled support for the Conrad-Gregg amendment. Because right in that second it lost all its appeal.

In my view all of these Commission proposals whether they be Cooper-Wolf SAFE, the similar plan pushed first by the Brookings-Heritage Fiscal Seminar and latter by the Peterson-Pew Commission (both effectively PGP operations), and Conrad-Gregg were designed by the aptly named Deficit Peacocks to gut Social Security by forcing Dems to vote on it in a package of 'sensible' deficit reduction proposals, that is killing Social Security is the long-term goal with deficits just being the excuse. When Baucus pulled the end-run on them with this amendment they simply pulled back waiting for another day, a day that Obama immediately proceeded to give them with his Catfood Commission.

It seems to me that you have misread this whole Commission proposal from the beginning. It was never designed in a way that would have any of them produce a package seriously weighed towards defense cuts or tax increases, the deadlock you confidently predicted was never in the cards, instead each proposal was carefully designed to start out with a solid majority who defined the major problem as starting and mostly stopping with 'Entitlements'.

And so it proved. The current Commission is stacked with 14 votes for cutting entitlements, which in this case means Social Security, with two of the four holdouts in Durbin and Shachowsky being Obama loyalists from Illinois. If Obama decides to listen to Orszag (author of SS reform plan Diamond-Orszag) or Orszag's Deputy Jeff Liebman (the Obama campaign's expert on SS and author of Liebman-MacGuineas-Samwick) it is game over for Social Security, we being lucky to even hold onto Andy Stern to be on the losing side of a 16-2 vote with Becerra.

In any event the notion that any of these proposals were advanced over Republican opposition just doesn't match the actual ground game as it developed since this all came up at the Fiscal Responsibility Summit in Spring 2009.

Posted by: BruceWebb | July 29, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

--"Klein was clearly refering to divisions of federal power."--

Much of what is passed off, these days, as being in the realm of federal power was once the domain of the individual, and should be reclaimed there. Any other argument is just dickering over the price of one's tyranny.

Posted by: msoja | July 29, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

A large third party will cause similar problems when there is no majority party.

Posted by: staticvars | July 29, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

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