Commissions rarely have much impact on Washington policymaking, so why do we have such a long string of them? Because political leaders want to convince their constituents that they really stand for whatever the commission is set up to do, when, in fact, the laws they’re voting for do the opposite.
Bruce’s post lists them. Most recently, President Bush’s Tax Reform Commission did an unusually good job, only to find their work was for nought. The Kerrey-Danforth Commission did an excellent job on entitlement reform, leading to welfare reform, but not much else.
The Greenspan Social Security Commission has more mythology surrounding it than most commissions, and I take every opportunity to disabuse people of the idea that this was the beacon for Social Security reform. I was there on the Senate floor in early 1983, when we were a few months away from not having enough money in the Social Security Trust Fund to pay benefits, as a I recall, on May 1, 1983. Mr. Greenspan and his fellow commissioners had met for months and were secretly deadlocked, despite optimistic public statements. Members of Congress were uniformly terrified of raising payroll taxes or cutting benefits, both of which obviously had to be part of any real solution. Then, one late afternoon, Pat Moynihan (D-NY) walked across the floor to talk to Senate Finance Committee Chair Bob Dole (R-KS). I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize the topic was Social Security. They cut the deal in broad outline right there, fed it to Mr. Greenspan, and left the details to his Commission. So at the last minute, Republicans and Democrats locked arms around a plan “to save Social Security” by raising the payroll tax, to shave benefits, and to very gradually raise the retirement age on future retirees. President Reagan endorsed it, and the rest was history. Like a lot of bad economic theory, the idea that the Greenspan Commission solved the 1983 Social Security crisis has the causality backwards. Dole and Moynihan fed the deal to the Commission, not the other way around.
Commission just provide political cover for good or for ill. It would be nice to think that a deficit reduction commission could lift the massive burden we’ve just left for our kids to pay for, but our elected representatives will have to do the heavy lifting first if it’s ever going to happen, just as with Social Security reform in 1983.