Congress Looks to Insert Itself into the Debt *Problem*

Ugh oh, a recent article in National Journal (subscription required) quotes several members of Congress, including Senate Budget Chair Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), expressing strong interest in the creation of a bi-partisan debt-reduction commission with binding recommendation powers to Congress. It seems Conrad, Wolf, and other budget hawks see the administration's need to raise the debt ceiling as the perfect opportunity to press for the creation of such a body. While there's nothing wrong with a debt commission per se, I find the timing and details of this scheme troubling for a number of reasons.

He'll save the children, but not the British children

There are several versions of legislation floating around Capitol Hill to establish a commission that would work to reduce the government's long-term deficits, and all of them imbue their working groups with some form of binding recommendation powers, which means that Congress would have to grant any policy prescriptions an up or down vote. This is fine as long as the commission is composed of at least semi-impartial members that can make the tough choices based on a give-and-take atmosphere, but the proposed commissions would be made up mostly of sitting members of Congress.

While some proposals also seat members of the Obama administration or academic experts, I find it hard to believe that a small group comprised mostly of congressional members, who are prey to the powers of moneyed interests and subject to the short-term whims of electoral politics, could make sound decisions about long-term deficit policy. This is especially true when the commission will more than likely consider everything from revenues and taxes, to mandatory and discretionary spending. A small group of sitting congressional members is more likely to either become deadlocked over partisan posturing or produce a weak set of recommendations.

Even worse than seating members of Congress, a pair of companion bills sponsored by Reps. Wolf and Jim Cooper (D-TN) in the House, and Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and George Voinovich (R-OH) in the upper chamber, calls for "town-hall style public hearing[s] within each federal reserve district." These regional public hearings are meant to foster "an honest discussion with the American public about the choices our country faces," according to Rep. Wolf.

While engaging the public is almost always a good thing, the chance that these town halls actually produce valuable suggestions about the budget process and don't devolve into uninformed shouting matches over spending like this summer's congressional health care town halls did is slim to none. If the commission uses the meetings to explain the sacrifices that all Americans are going to need to make to help solve big problems, they might be useful. Unfortunately, I think that is unlikely.

I don't doubt that Congress has tough budget choices ahead, but I wonder if these proposals would really create the political space to allow for those tough choices to be made.

Image by Flickr user The Consumerist used under a Creative Commons license.

back to Blog