Debt commission’s fate now in president’s hands

In the latest blow to bipartisanship, the Senate today voted down an amendment introduced by Senators Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg to establish a commission charged with recommending ways to reduce the federal debt over the long-term. Under the amendment, which was designed to circumvent legislative obstacles to reform, the commission’s proposals would have been fast-tracked for up-or-down congressional votes.

Although the measure initially possessed strong bipartisan support, many Republicans backed away from it in recent weeks out of concern that the commission would recommend tax increases and relieve pressure on President Obama to rein in federal spending. At the same time, some powerful Democrats worried that the commission would usurp their own legislative authority and propose cuts to popular entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.

The debate over the commission has focused on whether the panel should be created. The answer to that question is simple: yes, because Congress has demonstrated that it is unable through the regular legislative process to take the tough steps necessary to place the country on a sustainable fiscal course.

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But equally important is how the commission is designed. With the Conrad-Gregg amendment defeated, the White House has suggested that President Obama might establish a fiscal commission by executive order instead. The conventional wisdom is that such a commission would be less effective than a panel created by statute because an executive order cannot mandate Congress to fast-track the commission’s proposals. In fact, a presidential commission holds the promise of being more influential than the statutory commission would have been.

Under the Conrad-Gregg amendment, the commission would have been almost guaranteed to fail. Their measure stipulated that the commission’s proposals would need to be approved by 14 of the panel’s 18 members in order for its recommendations to get up-or-down votes in Congress. Yet achieving this kind of strong supermajority on the commission would have been next-to-impossible because all but two of the commissioners would have been sitting members of Congress appointed by Democratic and Republican congressional leaders (the other two members would have been administration officials appointed by Obama). This commission makeup would have made the panel largely a microcosm of Congress, subject to the same partisanship and polarization that regularly stymie bipartisan efforts in the House and Senate.

By contrast, the executive order establishing a presidential commission could give Obama the authority to appoint a greater proportion of the commissioners himself. Given Obama’s expressed commitment to reducing the federal deficit, he would have a strong incentive to appoint Democratic and Republican moderates with the potential to agree on groundbreaking recommendations. These moderates could then form a powerful center of gravity on the panel, and they might be able to gain the backing of a strong majority on the commission for a creative combination of long-term tax increases and spending cuts.

There are several steps Obama can take to make this happy outcome more likely if he chooses to create the commission by executive order. First, Obama should give himself the authority to appoint a sizable share of the commission’s members—ideally, half of them—while authorizing congressional leaders to name the remainder. Obama should then appoint to the panel an equal number of Republican and Democratic centrists, most of which should be distinguished Americans who are not currently serving in government. Such appointments would bolster the commission’s political credibility by giving it an aura of greater bipartisanship and independence. At the same time, Obama should seek to persuade Pelosi and Reid to name moderates to the commission in order to facilitate the formation of a large pro-reform majority on the panel.

Second, Obama should solicit from Reid and Pelosi a written statement pledging to put the commission’s proposals to a vote on the House and Senate floors. Without such a pledge, it will be difficult for the congressional leaders to resist intense pressure from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to bury a set of recommendations that includes cuts to cherished programs.

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Third, Obama should give the commission a substantial budget to promote its recommendations after it reports. The experience of previous panels, such as the 9/11 Commission, demonstrates that commissions are much more influential when they advocate intensively on behalf of their proposals. The fiscal commission’s message will be greatly amplified if it is able to barnstorm the country to rally public support for the far-reaching tax and spending reforms required to bring the budget into greater balance.

Even with these steps, the intensely partisan climate of today’s Washington will make it quite difficult for the commission to succeed. But it is worth remembering that when the 9/11 Commission was formed, few observers expected that a panel of five Democrats and five Republicans would reach consensus and trigger major institutional reforms. President Obama is now making the effort to control federal spending a centerpiece of his agenda. At a time when the House and Senate are deadlocked along partisan lines, a commission may yet turn out to be a valuable tool for shaking Congress into action.

Jordan Tama is an Assistant Professor at American University’s School of International Service and a Research Fellow at AU’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.