After much congressional handwringing over what budget process reform to attach to a must-pass increase in the debt ceiling, support for the legislative proposal crafted by Senate Budget Committee leaders Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) has crumbled. It fell apart as many members recognized two political facts of life. One is that it would inevitably lead to tax increases. The other, reinforced by the Massachusetts election, is that Americans are in no mood for a back-room, members-only commission that rushes its plan through Congress just after the November election.
The White House solution to the impasse? Surprise – an executive commission to do the same thing. Democratic leaders met with Vice President Joe Biden reportedly have struck a deal that would look much like the Conrad-Gregg proposal except that it would be set up by the White House.
Senator Gregg condemned the White House attempted end run. “It’s a fraud among anyone interested in fiscal responsibility to claim that an executive order could structure something that would actually lead to action,” Gregg told The Washington Post.
Indeed, the White House deal with the Democratic leadership compounds the flaws of the Conrad-Gregg version of a commission. For one thing it lacks the necessary broad public consultation and steps to gain public support that is essential to achieve and sustain major reforms in entitlements. Further, the commissioners would be chosen from a pool of potentially lame duck Members of Congress, with a report due after the election and recommendations to be crammed through and voted on by the end of the year in a lame duck session. If this process were actually successful, it would virtually guarantee a back-room “Andrews Air Force Base” deal consisting of immediate and real tax hikes combined with distant and doubtful spending cuts.
The first steps to curing an addiction are to recognize you have a problem and to take the first tangible steps to get back on the path to sobriety. But an executive commission would have no teeth to tackle surging entitlement spending and would merely remove pressure on Congress or the President to take action. This past year saw spending explode to nearly 26 per cent of the economy – well over the 20% historical average – and with a staggering deficit of $1.4 trillion, or nearly 10 per cent of GDP. President Obama can show true leadership by proposing serious and specific reforms to entitlement spending in his upcoming budget, and he can start to get current spending under control by such things as cancelling TARP. But issuing an executive order to assemble a group of tired lawmakers to do the job for him is not the action of a decisive leader and will not produce results.