The U.S. needs to create a commission to deal quickly with the budget crisis

Thursday, January 21, 2010

THE NEED for action to improve the nation's fiscal outlook is indisputable. The question is, what, short of a financial meltdown, could force a gridlocked Congress to act in ways that serve the national interest but might be hazardous to lawmakers' short-term political interests. The least bad approach would be a law creating a bipartisan commission whose recommendations would be subject to a fast-tracked, up-or-down vote; this is an acknowledgement of the failure of the regular congressional process, but it is, sadly, necessary in the current environment.

However, the votes may be lacking for that course in the Senate, and even more so in the House. Instead, President Obama plans to issue an executive order creating a similar commission. Is this, as New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg says, a "fraud" designed to give the appearance of fiscal responsibility in order to obtain congressional votes for a needed increase in the debt ceiling? Or does it stand a chance of producing meaningful results?

Our advice would be to push for a statutory commission but, failing that, give the executive order a chance -- while hedging against the possibility that Mr. Gregg is correct. The difference between a statutory commission and one created by executive order may be less than meets the eye. The commission is supposed to report before the end of the year. Either way, statutory or executive order, the recommendations would require 60 votes to pass the Senate. And the plan is for the executive order to set an ambitious target: bringing the deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2015. The critical question is obtaining assurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the recommendations will receive a floor vote. "If an executive-order commission does not have explicit guarantee that the work of the commission gets a vote, then it's an empty exercise," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told us.

As with the version of a statutory commission that had been proposed, the executive order contemplates an 18-member body. Congressional Democrats would appoint six of their members; Republicans would appoint six; and Mr. Obama would name six, no more than four from the same party. Recommendations would require a supermajority vote of 14 of those 18. In other words, assuming that all of the congressional Democrats and presidential picks go along, two of the six congressional Republicans would also have to agree.

That will be immensely difficult. Both sides will need to show flexibility for this enterprise to have any chance of success. Tax increases and changes to entitlement programs are needed; Republicans resist the first, Democrats the second. Mr. Obama will have to put more political capital into deficit reduction than he has been willing to invest so far.

The risk is that both Congress and the White House will use such a commission as a fig leaf for continued inaction. "We can no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget, the next administration or the next generation," Mr. Obama declared when unveiling his 2010 budget last May. Except that is just what he did then. This year, commission or no, he needs a backup plan. He has to show a path to closing the gap between projected revenue and projected spending.

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