Then, when it seemed as if the commission would fail, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) tapped Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) on the shoulder at the Capitol. “Are we going to let this commission die without giving it one more try?” he said.
After that, leaders of the two parties worked out a solution that brought major changes to Social Security, melding tax increases with benefit cuts. Instead of circumventing Washington’s usual politics, the commission had been saved by them.
A decade later, another presidential commission was charged with overhauling large federal benefit programs. Divided by disputes between the two parties, it worked for 10 months and failed to agree on a plan.
“I just wonder, when the pressure’s off, if commissions like that can actually work,” said former congressman Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), who worked on the Clinton-era commission. He said it’s difficult for these commissions to overcome partisan divides without a crisis looming. “My sense is that, you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,” he said.
This year, it seems likely that the proposed commission’s members would face determined lobbying from groups hoping to influence their decisions. The Strengthen Social Security Campaign, for instance, plans to target the members to dissuade them from cutting benefits.
“It’s a cowardly way to make public policy that’s going to affect every American,” said Eric Kingson, a professor at Syracuse University and co-chairman of the campaign. “When changes are made, they ought to be made through the normal legislative process — not through a commission that enables members of Congress to hide from very hard choices.”
FreedomWorks, an advocacy group allied with the tea party movement, is planning to create its own debt commission, and to hold meetings to underline tea party demands for spending cuts.
“We’re going to dog them,” said a spokesman for the group, Adam Brandon. “Wherever they’re going with their commission, we’re going to have our own.”