The recent debt limit increase passed by Congress has sparked a national debate on how to adequately reverse out-of-control federal spending. After much congressional hand-wringing recently over what budget process reform to attach to the must-pass increase in the debt ceiling, support for a bipartisan commission crafted by Senate Budget Committee leaders Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) crumbled. Lawmakers realized that the framing of the commission would most likely lead to tax increases with little real spending restraint with the same back-room deals of which Americans have become weary.
Just this morning, the President signed an executive order creating the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which will operate similarly to the failed Conrad-Greg proposal except that it would be set up by the White House rather than by statute. The goal of the commission is to balance the budget, excluding interest payments, by 2015. The commission will also be expected to make recommendations regarding entitlement reform in order to rein long-term deficits.
The National Commission created by the President raises concerns beyond those of the Conrad-Gregg proposal, especially since the President’s proposal is even further from securing the public’s trust and taking into account public opinion on future reform.
The White House commission lacks the necessary broad public consultation and steps to gain public support essential to achieving and sustaining major reforms in entitlements. The deadline for the commission’s recommendations, December 1, thoroughly discounts public opinion, as the date conveniently ensures the recommendation will not affect November elections. This also means lame duck members of Congress who have lost their seats and are no longer held accountable to their constituents will vote on the recommendations of the commission, which will be seen by many Americans as an affront to the will of the people as expressed at the polls.
The structure of the National Commission is also likely to strain bipartisanship. The commission will consist of 18 members, and 14 votes will be required to vote a recommendation out of the commission. Congressional Majority and Minority leaders will respectively choose six members, and the President will choose the remaining six. Of the President’s appointees, two must be Republicans. The President will without doubt choose Republicans who are likely to fall in step with his vision for reform, leaving only two additional Republican votes needed to pass a recommendation.
As we’ve pointed out before, an executive commission with no teeth to tackle surging entitlement spending will merely remove pressure on Congress and the President to take true 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, and he can start to get current spending under control by such things as canceling 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 effective results.