Is It Time for a New, Bipartisan Fiscal Commission?

Special Guests: Romina Boccia

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This week on Facing the Future, we explored the idea of appointing a new bipartisan commission to find solutions to our nation’s long-term fiscal challenges. Our guest was Romina Boccia, director of budget and entitlement policy at the Cato Institute, where she specializes in federal spending, budget process, the economic implications of rising debt, and Social Security and Medicare reform. She recently wrote a blog titled Would Congress Abdicate Its Responsibility by Empowering a BRAC-like Fiscal Commission? It got a lot of attention, so we thought it would be a good idea to dive into the details with her. Concord Coalition policy director Tori Gorman and chief economist Steve Robinson joined the conversation.

Boccia began by explaining that a fiscal commission is needed because the debt is growing on autopilot and policymakers have been unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

“The simple fact is that the United States has amassed unsustainable, unfunded obligations that are growing faster than the economy, such that the real burden of government spending is growing faster than the ability of U.S. taxpayers to cover this burden, “ Boccia said.

She noted that the vast majority of projected spending growth comes from very popular entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, which poses a political problem as well as a substantive problem.

“Observing the political process and the failure of the budget process in recent years in particular, and the deficit reduction deals that Congress has been able to strike, the shear magnitude of the entitlement spending problem and what it will take to resolve it makes me highly pessimistic about Congress’ ability to address the problem without help from the outside,” Boccia said.

Her recommendation is a new commission designed on the Base Realignment and Closure process known as BRAC that dealt with the politically toxic task of closing more than 100 defense facilities between 1988 and 2005.

Members of the commission would be independent experts appointed by the president and congressional leaders subject to Senate confirmation. Boccia told us that members of Congress should not be on the commission.

“I wouldn’t put any members of Congress on it,” she said “because the great benefit of a fiscal commission would be to provide political cover, to leave it to outside experts, not elected officials because that is fundamentally the problem we’re trying to overcome.” 

She recommends that the commission be given a specific goal, such as stabilizing the debt-to-GDP ratio over 10 or 30 years, with no preconditions on how to achieve that goal.

“In the past, we’ve seen legislative text where one party or the other would try to constrain the commission by saying, for example, ‘you may only consider spending reductions but no revenue increases or the opposite.’ That, I think, would be a recipe for failure,” she observed.

Drawing from the success of the BRAC process, Boccia said that a key feature of the commission should be that its recommendations would automatically take effect if approved by the president unless Congress passes a joint resolution of disapproval rejecting the recommendations as a whole. 

“BRAC is a very promising model,” Boccia said, “because it helped Congress to do something they knew they should do, they wanted and needed to get done, but found it politically difficult to do.”

One potential objection to a BRAC-like commission for the entire budget is that it might be an abdication of Congress’ constitutional spending and taxing powers. Boccia’s response to this is that “Congress abdicated its spending responsibilities a long time ago when it put in place programs that would grow on autopilot with no congressional reconsideration, without the requirement for Congress to agree to additional spending.”

There are no magic solutions, including a fiscal commission. As former CBO director Rudy Penner once observed, “The problem isn’t the process. The problem is the problem.” But as we are witnessing yet another year of appropriations dysfunction following yet another near miss on a debt limit default – all on top of the pre-existing and unsustainable path of the debt, ideas like Boccia’s must be seriously considered. 


Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join us as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.


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