Political Animal


November 20, 2012 2:09 PM Taking the Politics Out of Politics

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • TomParmenter on November 20, 2012 2:25 PM:

    Only a few scraps remain of my stint as a political science grad student, but the title of Harold Lasswell's classic, 'Politics, Who Gets What, When, and How' is one scrap.

    Another is the definition of politics as 'competition over scarce resources'.

    If every political article were run through this filter, the value of political discourse would be immeasurably raised. It is silly and childish to pretend that there is some magical way of looking at issues that would remove this element. Indeed, 'taking and giving' are demonized as that wasn't what everybody is always up to.

  • golack on November 20, 2012 2:41 PM:

    There used to be various respected gov't offices in DC, sort out in house think tanks, where congressmen could request studies, maybe a short course on a topic, etc. to be brought up to speed and to help tease out the possible.

    Alas, reality has a liberal bias, so they have to defunded and closed down...

  • boatboy_srq on November 20, 2012 2:42 PM:

    [T]here arenít 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...

    Emphasis added.

    Indeed. Look at San Francisco Bay: how many bases were closed because the DoD was POd at Ron Dellums?

    As for the current proposition - isn't the "unelected Big Gubmint officials messing with things and wasting tax $$s" part of what the Teahad is about? Way to not achieve that "bipartisan" solution.

  • BillFromPA on November 20, 2012 2:58 PM:

    It seems to me that these congress critters spent a lot of time and money aquiring the job of Congressman or Senator, supposedly to do the job of representing us. This requires making tough decisions that may endanger their tenure there. So be it. These commissions are simply a way of pushing the heavy lifting onto unelected folks in order to be able to say, 'Hey, I didn't vote to end your (fill in the blank), THEY did'. FTS. You wanted to be adderssed as 'Senator' or whatever, with all the bowing and scraping that goes with it, now do your effin job.

  • T2 on November 20, 2012 3:04 PM:

    the problem,of course, is that one of our political parties will only approve a "commission" report if it is in line with their philosophy. Even non-partisan reporting services such as the CBO has its findings routinely rejected if they don't support the Conservative point of view. This "commission" idea is dumb, for all the reasons BillFrom PA notes.

  • c u n d gulag on November 20, 2012 3:37 PM:

    Yes, let's get some unelected, completely unaccountable people to do the job that our Congresscritters are supposed to do.
    Nothing UNdemocratic about that!

    Hey, elected officials - it ain't all back-slaps at the cocktail parties, and raising funds, and stuffing checks from corporate donors at expensive restaurants where you're been treated to dinner - sometimes, you need to do some work.

  • thebewilderness on November 20, 2012 3:47 PM:

    I think oligarchy is the word used to describe that particular form of government where the elected officials rubber stamp what their wealthy sponsors decree.

  • Shane Taylor on November 20, 2012 4:56 PM:

    What Ed said. When the purpose of a change in policy is this deeply contested, the promise of technocracy is a mirage. Which I attempt to explain here:


  • H-Bob on November 20, 2012 8:41 PM:

    Also, will any commissions even have one member of the bottom 90% ? A majority of the members of any commission on Social Security should be persons that will rely primarily on Social Security for retirement income. I'm tired of wealthy Democrats "compromising" on poor retirees eating cat food !