I’ve been saying for months that the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is probably doomed. The co-chairs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, appear to agree.
So my first real question is, What have these people been doing with $500,000 of the taxpayers’ money for the past nine months? Lori Montgomery in the Washington Post reports that many of the commission’s 18 members were “startled” by the Bowles-Simpson plan, which Bowles himself called a “starting point.”
Starting point? Are you kidding? This commission was empaneled in February and held its first – official – meeting in May. It’s now less than three weeks before the members are obligated to turn in their unified report, and apparently they didn’t even have a basis for discussion until now.
So my second question is, What would Bob Ball say? Ball, the longtime commissioner of Social Security and the elder statesperson of the program, spent more than 40 years of his career serving commissions just such as this one – as a staff member, executive director, member, and chair. He probably accomplished more in these settings than anyone else in Washington history, despite the notorious difficulty of getting them to work.
If Ball had been serving on this one, he would undoubtedly have attempted to get a defender on the table as fast as humanly possible: mostly to increase the chances that he would get his way, but also to make sure the conversation didn’t meander off down a thousand blind alleys.
The answer to why this wasn’t done probably isn’t simple, but here’s a guess. Looking over the personnel involved, it doesn’t seem to include anyone with significant experience on presidential commissions: not the co-chairs, and, critically, not Bruce Reed, the conservative Democrat who serves as executive director. The exec director’s role is always key: setting agendas, organizing research, and generally providing adult supervision to a group of personalities often prone to diva-like behavior. Without a strong exec director, the result, usually, is dysfunction.
Coverage of the Bowles-Simpson press conference and proposal in the corporate media, thus far, hasn’t been informed by any understanding of these facts. Instead, the major outlets are treating the “co-chairs’ mark” as a major event, so much so that the New York Times’ lead article on the proposal, introduced at a hastily-called press conference Wednesday, started with the following misleading headline and subhead: “Panel Seeks Cuts in Social Security and Higher Taxes: Bipartisan Commission Wants to Slash Spending by Government.”
The casual reader would be mistaken to think that this meant the commission itself had come up with such a plan. Actually, it was just Simpson and Bowles. For months, the panel’s critics have complained about the secretive nature of the proceedings: its official meetings given over to a parade of predigested testimony, while all substantive discussion goes on (cue Charlie Rich’s 1973 hit here).
But the fact is that until fairly recently, commissions like this one never allowed the public into their meetings, because no real dealmaking would be possible under such circumstances. The fact that the co-chairs have stepped outside the smoke-filled room and gone public with their own plan – a Hail Mary that will surely be resented by many of their colleagues as an attempted bum-rush – suggests very strongly that they’re close to giving up.
Here’s some more history: More or less that same thing happened in 1994, when the co-chairs of the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform – otherwise known as the Kerrey-Danforth commission – couldn’t get their colleagues to agree on a plan to cut entitlements. Bob Kerrey and John Danforth went public with their own proposal, whereupon the other members retaliated went public with their annoyance. Said one of these, Rep. John Dingell:
Members were given fewer than 24 hours to analyze the consequences, [which include] unprecedented Social Security and Medicare cuts, the partial privatization of the programs, means testing of Medicare and Unemployment Insurance, and a 43 percent reduction in the value of benefits for today’s young.
Three weeks might seem longer than 24 hours, but not with a proposal as sweeping as Bowles-Simpson.
Something similar happened a year later, when the 1994-96 Advisory Council on Social Security was headed toward deadlock. That Advisory Council was a pivotal event, effectively launching the Social Security debate that’s still running today. But when chair Ned Gramlich – the future Federal Reserve governor – sensed that a group pro-Social Security members (led by Bob Ball) were coalescing around a plan to improve the program’s finances while preserving its fundamental structure, while a right-wing faction was planning to introduce a proposal to cut benefits and carve out private accounts, he decided to introduce his own plan, that incorporated elements of both.
Gramlich’s decision didn’t resolve the disagreement – instead, it made it hopeless. He was only able to find one other member who supported his plan. Soon, the three factions more or less gave up talking to each other and instead went public, promoting their ideas to the press, to congressional committees, and whoever else would listen. In the end, the commission released a report containing all three proposals. The fact that two of them included private accounts – although Gramlich’s were not carve-outs – helped propel a slew of privatization proposals in Congress over the next several years.
Bowles and Simpson’s desperation pass has already provoked quick rejection from progressives. Nancy “Still the Speaker” Pelosi calls the co-chairs’ plan “simply unacceptable.” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the commission, says it’s “not a proposal that I could support now” and continues to demand an impact analysis. Sen. Dick Durbin used slightly more exotic language:
I told them that there are things in there that inspire me, and there are things in there that I hate like the devil hates holy water. I’m not going to vote for this thing.
On the Republican side, hardcore privatizers are digging in their heels as well. Grover Norquist warned GOP lawmakers that supporting Bowles-Simpson would amount to breaking their blood oath not to raise taxes.
What ought to be the most closely parsed response comes from Reps. Paul Ryan, Jeb Hensarling, and Dave Camp:
This is a provocative proposal, and while we have concerns with some of their specifics, we commend the co-chairs for advancing the debate.
Ryan and Hensarling have been promoting full-on privatization proposals in Congress for half a decade now. Ryan, especially, is the intellectual darling of his party. The pattern that seems to be evolving over the past few days is that progressives reject Bowles-Simpson out of hand, while conservatives – including those of the libertarian, dead-set-against-taxes persuasion – are more measured, perhaps seeing the possibility of a deal.
Stephen Spruiell of National Review suggests the following about Bowles-Simpson:
Yes, the tax hikes are pricey, and no one is ever going to like every single item on the menu. But it’s important to look at the ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes when gauging whether the commission has served up something conservatives can swallow, and by my (very rough) estimate it looks like about 75 percent of the deficit reduction comes from spending cuts. That’s about as good as we can get on a big budget compromise with a problem this large, and the fact that the commission is starting with that ratio probably accounts for the (cautiously) optimistic responses the proposals are getting from Republicans and moderate Democrats vs. the exploding heads on the left.
So is a harmonic convergence of the Pain Caucus and the Free Lunch Caucus about to take place? My semi-educated judgment is that I’ll see it when I believe it. The commission has less than three weeks to work through the curious mix of detail and vagueness that the co-chairs launched on Wednesday. The Free Lunch Caucus are feeling powerful after their party captured the House and therefore may not be inclined to settle for a Social Security deal that doesn’t include private accounts.
Last but not least, Bowles, Simpson, and Reed have shown no skill at managing the commission process. I’m not convinced they will reveal any new abilities down the stretch.