A commission whose time hasn’t come

A COMMISSION WHOSE TIME HASN’T COME…. After weeks of chatter, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) unveiled legislation to create a bipartisan “commission” on deficit reduction.

Their plan is to create a task force with 18 members — eight congressional Democrats, eight congressional Republicans, the Treasury secretary, and another administration official. After the midterms, the commission would make recommendations to Congress — a combination of raising revenue and curtailing spending — which would need the support of 14 of the 18 members.

From there, Congress would have to vote on the package, up or down, without amendments, and be approved by 60% majorities in both chambers.

In other words, Conrad and Gregg have created a plan that’s almost certain to fail. Jonathan Chait explained:

Let me get this straight. You have a commission proposing a package of highly unpopular legislative changes. And, in addition to having to surmount the 60-vote barrier in the Senate, which is nearly insurmountable for major legislation and which was avoided for both of the last two major deficit-reducing bills, it’s also going to impose a new supermajority requirement in the House and a 78% threshold in the commission itself?

To say that this procedure “is designed to get results” shows a very odd understanding of American political institutions. Conrad and Gregg seem to think that instituting major reforms in the public interest is rare because the threshold for passing legislation is too low. Thus they’ve designed a process that creates new and higher supermajority requirements, on an issue where getting even 51% to sign on is probably impossible. And if that fails, maybe they’ll conclude the process was too easy. Next time they could also require the commission members to create a cold fusion reactor or retrieve a magical ring from inside a volcano.

A variety of national progressive groups, including major labor unions, the NAACP, and the National Organization for Women, spoke out against the Conrad/Gregg idea, calling it “undemocratic,” and likely to create “a hidden process aimed at eviscerating vital programs and productive investment.”

I’m quite certain these groups are right, but I’m nearly as confident that it won’t matter — the result of the commission’s work stands almost no chance of clearing its own hurdles.

To be sure, I understand where the proponents are coming from here. By mandating supermajorities at every stage of the process, Conrad and Gregg hope to create some kind of consensus. It’s one big “grand bargain” — some Republicans would be forced to accept tax increases they don’t want, in exchange for the spending cuts they do want. For Dems, it would be vice versa. By requiring a bipartisan result, the intention is to create a credible result that would be subjected to less demagoguery.

For the record, I’d find the commission idea misguided whether it was based on feasible framework or not, but as it stands, Conrad/Gregg is largely pointless. Ezra concluded, “It’s like trying to cure the flu by competing in a triathlon. You can respond to the breakdown of bipartisanship by making bipartisanship less necessary (say, by ending the supermajority requirement) or by trying to attack the roots of polarization. But this doesn’t make any sense. If you’re a deficit hawk, it’s arguably worse than nothing, as it will make people think something is being done when nothing is actually happening.”