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BRITO: BRAC the federal budget

Fiscal commission needs real power to cut programs

When was the last time Congress heeded a presidential commission's recommendations? Sen. Judd Gregg knows.

Before joining the president's Bipartisan Fiscal Commission, which met for the second time last week, Mr. Gregg explained, "Numerous commissions have been created by executive order over the years, and their common thread is that none have produced any legislative results ... their recommendations collect dust on a shelf."

The evidence lies in President George W. Bush's tax-reform and Social Security commissions as well as President Clinton's Task Force on National Health Care Reform, led by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ira Magaziner. Each time, a commission produced thick reports that were received with pomp and circumstance and then ceremoniously ignored by Congress.

Commission approaches can work, however. They even can be highly effective, but they're only effective when the commission has the power to force Congress' hand.

One commission that has this power and thus consistently delivers results is the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission. BRAC is effective because it is a congressional commission whose recommendations become effective immediately. Congress has the power to repeal the commission's recommendations on an "up-or-down" vote, but the commission doesn't need congressional action to enact its recommendations.

This might sound like a nuanced distinction, but it makes a world of difference in getting things done. In creating a BRAC commission, members of Congress vote on the consensus notion that there are too many military bases and some should be cut. That's an easy vote. A hard vote is one for a particular base to close, but thanks to BRAC's structure, no member of Congress has to take that vote. If a member's hometown base is on BRAC's recommended cut list, he no doubt will introduce a resolution to overturn BRAC's recommendations. However, the vast majority of members, unaffected by the recommendations, will do the fiscally responsible thing and vote against overturning the recommendations - another easy vote.

The other factor that contributes to BRAC's success is that Congress gave it a focused mission - to close or realign military bases - and clear criteria on which to base its judgments. In contrast, executive order charges the present fiscal commission with the amorphous task of "identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run." What, precisely, does that mean?

No matter how brilliant the members of the president's fiscal commission are, that commission won't put us on the path to "fiscal sustainability." No commission could. But a truly BRAC-like commission could do a brilliant job with a concrete goal, such as identifying federal programs that should be shuttered.

In fact, if Congress and the administration truly want to curb federal spending, a BRAC-like commission would be a great place to start. Members of Congress probably believe in principle that they need to reduce spending. What they want to avoid is identifying specific programs to ax.

To give itself political cover, Congress could delegate this narrow task to an expert panel and give that panel clear, performance-based criteria on which to base its recommendations. Importantly, though, Congress also must make sure the commission's recommendations are effective immediately. In order to stop handing over money, Congress must tie its own hands.

Jerry Brito is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. His new working paper on applying the lessons of BRAC to a federal spending commission is available at Mercatus.org.

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