Taking the Politics Out of Politics

Given the endless posturing and litmus-test imposing nature of recent Big Fiscal Talks, and the dangerous futility of efforts to overcome the usual tensions through congressional Supercommittees, it’s not surprising some–most recently MIT economist Peter Diamond, in a New York Times op-ed–want to call in the technocrats to “fix” the problem:

Instead of wide-ranging, politically motivated panels, we need narrowly targeted commissions, without sitting members of Congress, modeled on the successful Base Closure and Realignment Commissions of recent decades.

Compare the successes of five consecutive base-closing commissions, which were charged with shuttering or shrinking military facilities, and the failures of both the Simpson-Bowles Commission and the deficit “supercommittee.”

In all of these cases, Congress recognized the difficulty in addressing an important issue, and committed itself to a no-amendments, up-or-down action on a possible commission report.

Diamond contemplates a whole bunch of these commissions:

We could create, for example, one commission to design a plan to restore balance to Social Security, one to review income tax deductions, one to review tax expenditures that target single industries and one to consider smaller programs for possible closure or merger.

While I’m sympathetic to Diamond’s frustration-fed suggestion, there aren’t really that many parallels between the mission of the base-closing commissions (which were, BTW, not as completely apolitical as they were advertised to be, as I can attest from some involvement with the first one in the early 1990s), and those that would tackle major tax and spending controversies, even bit-by-bit.

The base-closing commissions were sorting through options with very clear guidance not only from Congress but from the Pentagon, whose own long-term strategies and plans for the various branches of the military were accepted by all involved. It worked, to the extent it did (again, the successes have been exaggerated in memory), because the whole purpose was to deal with decisions that had a disproportionate local impact; the whole idea was to produce a sort of reverse log-rolling phenomenon. But the commissions did not really deal with policy at all–much less the kind of highly controversial policies in play in figuring out a major fiscal deal.

One of my favorite old southern sayings is: “You can’t take the politics out of politics.” In this case, trying to do so will not only put unelected “experts” in charge of decisions with long-term national impact, but will invite indirect political manipulation that will be difficult to track and almost impossible to hold anyone accountable for.

Sometime when “politics” seems “broken,” it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to circumvent democracy altogether. But it’s rarely a good idea. Some sort of allegedly supra-political Commission of National Salvation composed of pols is a bad idea; a series of allegedly non-political commissions of technocrats just compounds the problem.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.