Fool me with a budget commission once, shame on you. Fool me eight times …

October 4, 2013

Here is a partial list of bipartisan budget negotiations we've had since 2010: The Simpson-Bowles Commission (which, people forget, was the legacy of a 2010 debt-ceiling increase). The Domenici-Rivlin commission. The Cantor-Biden talks. The Obama-Boehner debt-ceiling negotiations. The Gang of Six talks. The "Supercommittee." The Obama-Boehner fiscal-cliff talks.

All these negotiations have one thing in common: They ultimately failed.

Let me finish. (Pete Souza/White House)
Let me finish. (Pete Souza/White House)

This is the baffling context for Speaker John Boehner's interest in a conference committee (which, by the way, Republicans have been refusing on the budget for six months) or some kind of tax-reform commission. We have run this play before. We have run it again and again. We have run it using top congressional leaders and President Obama. We have run it using B-string congressional leaders and Vice President Biden. We have run it using retired politicians and wonks. We have run it using various non-leadership members of Congress. We have run it with fast-track authority, and with the threat of sequestration and with the danger of the debt-ceiling. It hasn't worked.

In fact, it's worked so poorly that, of late, Republicans have simply refused to be part of these negotiations. After the fiscal cliff, Boehner told his members he was done with backroom negotiations with the president. And Republicans have spent the past six months refusing to enter budget negotiations with Senate Democrats.

The failures have all been for the same reason: The two parties actually disagree on the merits. Republicans won't accept enough new taxes for Democrats to accept the GOP's entitlement cuts. Democrats won't cut entitlements without securing serious new revenues. And so, each and every time, the talks end in failure.

The idea Republicans have this time is to try and write taxes out of the result on the front-end by instructing the commission to be "revenue-neutral." It's unlikely Democrats would agree to that.

Which isn't to say another commission can't be the way out of the current impasse. The White House's view is that they'll compromise on process but not on policy. A new commission counts as a process compromise. If that's enough for Republicans to save face, then it's a low-cost way out of this mess. But it's hard to believe anyone in Washington will buy the idea that yet another budget commission has even a shadow of a chance at success. And even if they do, what happens when the commission fails, and the next CR and debt-ceiling increase needs to be passed?

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Ezra Klein · October 4, 2013