Commission to temper U.S. deficit is a good idea
A bipartisan commission pushing Congress to solve America’s long-term budget problems is no silver bullet. But it looks like a pretty compelling idea next to some of the alternatives, such as permitting higher inflation and risking a dollar crisis. The ongoing healthcare debate shows Congress has little stomach to make the kinds of hard decisions required to put the country’s finances in order.
The construct favored by Senators Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire appears generally sound. A commission would be filled by congressional decision makers and White House representatives, not experts. This approach would help create a built-in constituency on Capitol Hill and in the Obama administration for fiscal action. Its recommendations of budget cuts and tax increases would also be submitted after the 2010 election.
Several other elements are also necessary for the body to function effectively. It should have an advisory panel made up of high-profile members who could both consult with the commission and help sell it across America. Warren Buffett, Paul Volcker, Bill Gates and Jack Welch would be obvious potential choices. The commission should have a specific debt-to-GDP-ratio target and timeline that its suggestions would attempt to achieve and meet. And these shouldn’t be subject to congressional amendment.
While the notion of political commissions is worthy of skepticism, there are reasonably successful precedents. Congress passed the Social Security recommendations of the 1983 Greenspan Commission and the military cutbacks of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
But other commissions have failed. And critics will counter that the healthcare debate, with its manipulation of the Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year estimates and other accounting gimmicks, shows Congress isn’t serious about the deficit, and won’t be without a financial crisis as a catalyst. Yet if a crisis isn’t at the doorstep, it might at least be in the general vicinity. The dollar is weakening, China is complaining and Moody’s is nibbling at America’s AAA credit rating.