Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin has floated the idea of a new commission to find a solution for long-term Social Security problems. I’ll leave it to others to debate the merits or lack thereof of tackling Social Security reform now; instead, I’ll tackle the question of procedure: is a commission appointed by the president the right way to get it done? Which comes down to the question of what special commissions are good for, anyway?
Presidential commissions are good for exactly one thing: enabling something that everyone agrees should happen but no one wants to take credit for.
The largest subset of that is also almost certainly the most common successful use of these commissions — kicking the can down the road. If there’s pressure to do something that neither Democrats or Republicans want, setting a commission to the task solves that problem for some extended period. If it’s something they never want to have to deal with, so much the better; by the time the commission reports back, it’s possible that the source of pressure to act will have disappeared. Win! On the other hand, it may be something they just don’t want to deal with now; in that case, a commission allows them to wait until they can address it on their schedule.
The “supercommittee” formed from the debt limit negotiations last summer, while not technically a commission, was exactly that sort of delay maneuver. Neither party wanted to continue negotiating deficit reduction at that point; they wanted to pass the debt limit increase and avoid disaster, but for various reasons neither the White House nor Republican House leaders wanted to simply walk away from deficit reductions. Establishing the supercommittee-plus-sequestration procedure allowed them to suspend budget negotiations until after the election, which is exactly what happened.
Of course, sometimes presidential commissions get something done. A prime example was the base-closing commissions, which again were able to do something that everyone agreed should be done but which no one wanted the credit for.
So should there be a Social Security commission? I suspect not; I suspect that the real situation here is that Republicans are trying to drag Social Security into the fiscal-cliff negotiations, and Durbin is using this proposal as a way of separating Social Security from the tax and budget issues in play. If, however, Republicans also are feeling pressure to act on Social Security but don’t want to, then a commission is a logical solution. Or if both sides actually want a deal in which payroll taxes go up while benefits are reduced, then it’s possible that a commission could be the way to roll it out.
Most of the time, however, the best way to make deals and actually accomplish something is the old-fashioned one: use congressional committees, the House and Senate floor, and other normal negotiation between the White House and congressional leaders. After all, that procedure was good enough for getting Social Security (and Medicare, and most other things) passed in the first place; if everyone really wants to make a deal that they want to brag about, that’s the way to go.