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Bowles-Simpson Offers Lessons on the Deficit

The Greenspan commission of the early 1980s is also often cited as an example of how the process can work, but we now know it was actually a failure. Because of the tough politics of Social Security, the commission was unable to agree on anything, and the plan it announced was actually worked out in private by President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), two politicians cutting a deal the old-fashioned way.

Second, Bowles-Simpson showed clearly that any commission, but especially one that deals with taxes and spending, has to make a convincing case to the public for its proposals in order to be successful. Because Bowles-Simpson didn’t do this, recalcitrant commission members weren’t convinced that they would be politically protected if they supported it. Bowles and Simpson saw their job as just coming up with a plan, instead of coming up with a plan that had enough voter support to be adopted. That was a fatal flaw.

Third, I can tell you from personal experience (I served on a budget-related commission during the Clinton administration) that staffing is almost always a critical element for any commission. Most commission members don’t have the deep expertise needed to do the detail work, so they rely on others to do things like developing spending and revenue estimates and providing a deep dive on concepts. My commission relied on Treasury staff and a few paid outside consultants; Bowles-Simpson seemed to rely on staff on loan from outside organizations with an interest in the outcome. This is a huge problem in general; in this case it also called the commission’s objectivity into question.

Finally, even though a commission may work largely behind the scenes as Bowles-Simpson did, it has to keep in mind that the political environment will change simply because its existence and efforts generate questions, anxiety, support and opposition. The good feelings that may exist when the commission is named don’t automatically stay the same as its work continues.

For all the reasons noted above, my guess is that the Bowles-Simpson plan will suffer the same fate as the reports by virtually every other budget-related commission in U.S. history: the online equivalent of gathering dust on a shelf. By early next year, it will seldom be mentioned.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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