Tough choices ahead: America needs an independent recovery commission

Opening up the economy again,  after the enforced isolation to contain the spread of COVID-19, will require tough choices. The moral and practical tradeoffs will be like none this country has ever faced. Public trust in these choices is vital, to ensure broad acceptance and maintain a collective sense of the “rightness” of the course chosen.   

What’s needed is an independent commission, appointed on a bipartisan basis, that can recommend courses of action. An independent commission is vital to provide the moral foundation for the choices made. The poisonous politics in Washington have destroyed any hope of broad trust in leaders of either party. Public health officials Dr. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have earned moral authority for their leadership in containing the virus, but they have no special wisdom in evaluating the required trade-offs. 

These hard trade-offs facing America include:

  • Intrusions into our privacy, including continual testing, keeping track of those who are immune and those who must stay isolated, and social tracking of those who have been exposed; 
  • Acceptance of a certain level of illness in order to avoid an economic depression; and
  • Creation of authority mechanisms that can cut through the red tape to get businesses, schools and agencies up and running again without bureaucratic delays and inefficiencies. 

These choices will be unavoidably controversial. Nor can these decisions be resolved by first principles. American freedom will be both enhanced and diminished by incursions upon our privacy. People will die if we tolerate a certain level of spread, but others will die if the economy goes into a tailspin. Less red tape may mean more mistakes, but with the benefit of unleashing society-wide economic energy.   

To achieve public trust, an independent recovery commission need not have power. Its moral authority will stem, in part, from the fact that it is not dictatorial. What it can do is provide sober, nonpartisan recommendations that acknowledge the tradeoffs and explain why a certain course seems best. The president and Congress can act as they see fit, but departing from the recovery commission’s recommendations will carry political peril. Accepting its recommendations will take the partisan edge off the decision, and enhance public trust in the course chosen.  

The closest models for a recovery commission are “base-closing commissions,” which recommend to Congress which military bases to close, and the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission. The base-closing commission framework has been effective, shuttering some 350 bases since the 1980s. The Simpson-Bowles recommendations were never implemented, but they nonetheless achieved broad public credibility.    

President Trump has announced that he will appoint a “recovery task force” to advise him on how to reopen the economy. While any credible group of advisers is useful, it is unlikely that this task force will enjoy broad public trust unless it is independent and thought to be nonpartisan.   Any perception that the task force is made up of “loyalists” to the president will undermine its credibility.  

Congress could appoint such a commission, as it did base-closing commissions. But if the toxic politics between the House and the Senate make that impossible, then a diverse coalition of leading citizens and institutions should come together and organize a citizen recovery commission. Its authority would come from its credibility.  

Our country is facing a siege that might last several years, requiring sacrifices and choices that will be difficult and painful. Americans need advice they can trust. 

Philip K. Howard is an attorney and founder of Common Good. He is the author of “Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left.” Follow him on Twitter @PhilipKHoward.

Tags Anthony Fauci coronavirus economy COVID-19 Deborah Birx Donald Trump Recession Recovery approach

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