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Wednesday, January 27, 2010
By Steven L. Taylor

Via the LAT,  Senate rejects creation of commission to trim federal deficit:

The Senate on Tuesday rejected a proposal to establish a potentially powerful commission to reduce the federal budget deficit, despite President Obama’s endorsement and swelling voter anger about government spending and debt.

The bipartisan measure would have required Congress to accept or reject the commission’s recommendations without making changes, a provision designed to prevent lawmakers from dodging the most politically risky proposals.

While I understand the BRAC-like logic undergirding the idea, the bottom line is that there is something problematic about taking one of the most fundamental functions of the national legislature and outsourcing it to a commission.   It’s one thing to have a commission determine a specific set of policy recommendations (like which military bases to close), yet another to cede the ability to lay down a blueprint for overall policy (which is what budget are, in basic terms) for years to come to such a group.  Not to mention there is a real question of whether such recommendations would ultimately be binding over the long-haul (after all Congress makes, and therefore can change, the laws of the land).

The vote was bipartisan in composition:

Supporting the proposal were 36 Democrats, 16 Republicans and one independent. The opposition was a coalition of Republicans who worried that the panel would give new impetus to tax hikes and Democrats concerned that it would force cuts in Medicare and other prized programs.

The following statement gets to the heart of the matter, but not really in the way that the source of the statement declares:

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a cosponsor of the proposal, said its defeat was "yet another indication that Congress is more concerned with the next election than the next generation." Gregg is retiring from Congress at the end of the year.

Gregg’s accusation is leveled as his colleagues in the Senate, but the notion that the heart of the matter is the next election (or elections at all) points the finger not at politicians, but at those to whom the politicians ultimately answer:  the voters.  The bottom line of all of this is that while on the one hand the public doesn’t like deficits and debts, neither do the like serious spending cuts or tax increases.

I would note, too, that the structure of our government fosters the need to compromise (not that it always seems that way), and the need to compromise leads to more expensive policies with a low likelihood of new revenues to pay for them.  Consider:  1) bicameralism requires the need for the House and Senate to come to agreement (sometimes with different parties in charge of the chambers),  2)  the nature of representation in the Senate fuels this by having a different constituency represented than does the House, 3)  the rules in the Senate (the now infamous 60 vote needed to end debate) further adds to the need to cut deals and compromise,1 and separation of powers means that the legislature and executive (often of different parties) must also negotiate and compromise.

Consider further:  it is always easier to compromise by spending more and always harder to compromise by cutting spending or raising revenue.  After all, what Representative or Senator on the fence is going to go home and say “well, I ended up voting for the bill because it cut funds to bridges in our state by 1%” or “that tax increase was what convinced me!”  The structures and incentives in the system encourage spending, and that’s why we have a large debt and growing deficits.

  1. A simple example:  the deal given to Ben Nelson for his state to get him to support the health care bill.  And he wasn’t the only one and nor was that type of negotiation unique to the health care debate. []
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3 Responses to “Because You Can’t Take the Politics out of Politics”

  1. MSS Says:

    I agree completely on the BRAC comparison. And on the institutional incentives for spending.

    Yet, despite what a bad idea this was, and despite those incentives, this thing got 53 votes. In any sane legislative institution, that would have meant it passed.

    On the other hand, we could say it was something of a freebie for Senators. As long as they were unlikely to get to the 60 votes required to pass under the actual insane legislative institution that is the US Senate, they could look like they were doing something with no risk of actually doing it.

    If I were a game theorist, I could probably have a lot of fun with this.

  2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    we could say it was something of a freebie for Senators. As long as they were unlikely to get to the 60 votes required to pass under the actual insane legislative institution that is the US Senate, they could look like they were doing something with no risk of actually doing it.

    I am totally with that interpretation.

  3. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » The Same Subject Continued Says:

    [...] as I noted the other day, the actual practice of governing in the U.S. is such that the institutional parameters make [...]

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