How Would a Successful Budget Commission Work?

In the Washington, D.C. political landscape, a time-honored strategy for elected officials seeking to navigate the delicate balance of decision-making without jeopardizing their political standing is the establishment of specialized commissions.

The situation is as follows: imagine a military base within a congressional district has fallen into a state of irreparable obsolescence. The financial resources required to modernize it far exceed the capabilities of a Representative and Senators to deliver. Sustaining its operations is a fiscal drain, and those funds could otherwise be strategically allocated to enhance his or her chances of reelection.

Advocating for the closure of the base means shouldering the blame for the subsequent loss of jobs associated with it. Such a move would undoubtedly imperil what matters most to these politicians—the prospect of securing victory in their upcoming elections. The conundrum is clear: how can this issue be effectively addressed without exposing their political positions to undue risk?

If they’re like most politicians, they need a commission. A group of people tasked with making politically unpopular decisions, like the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Commissions can shoulder the blame that politicians would face if they were to exhibit genuine courage. Commissions, in essence, serve as a form of political insurance for elected officials.

As the United States grapples with an increasingly precarious fiscal situation, there is a growing acknowledgment that the federal budget process is in disarray, and the trajectory of excessive spending is unsustainable. Because they are, calls for a fiscal policy commission are growing louder.

How would a successful budget commission to fix the U.S. government’s failing fiscal policies work?

Writing at Reason, Veronique de Rugy explains how a successful fiscal commission would work:

At the heart of the commission’s charge must be a commitment not just to reduce some deficits but to put the government back on a sustainable track. As my colleague and former CBO Director Keith Hall convinced me, the commission will fail if it doesn’t have a clear target from the start. Then it will need to be both transparent and accountable by operating in the open, making its findings and deliberations available to the public, and thereby fostering an informed debate about the choices facing the nation.

The commission could be established through legislation mandating that Congress consider any resulting proposals on a fast-track basis, with limited opportunities for amendment and delay. Such mechanisms have been used successfully in the past with military-base closure commissions and trade agreements, and they could be adapted to the task of fiscal reform.

The commission’s work would inevitably confront entrenched interests and face stiff opposition from those who benefit from the status quo. It would therefore need to be composed of individuals capable of rising above partisanship and special interests to act in the nation’s best interest. Members of Congress might themselves want to sit on the commission, though few of them fit these requirements, considering who got us into this mess in the first place.

In short, a fiscal commission represents a pragmatic approach to a problem that has for too long been mired in politics and short-term thinking. It offers a pathway out of the fiscal morass, provided it is empowered to act, and its recommendations are taken seriously.

For Congress, which has shirked its responsibilities, the commission offers a chance to redeem itself by enabling reforms that might otherwise never see the light of day. In this way, the commission does not usurp Congress’ role but rather complements it, providing the impetus needed for genuine fiscal reform.

Washington, D.C.’s politicians are rapidly approaching the point where they can no longer get away with kicking the can down the road instead of making hard choices. They still don’t want to grapple with the tough choices, so setting up a budget commission will become necessary. It’s only a question of when. Sooner would be better.

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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