How the President’s Budget Commission Can Increase Its Probability for Success

Few commissions change the world, and most fail. Yet, too often, blame is heaped solely on circumstances outside the commission’s control, as though how well the commission conducted its business didn’t matter. Based on my experience with many reform efforts coming out of the executive branch or a commission, here are six ways that the president’s budget commission—particularly its chairs—can up the odds that it will succeed.

  1. Get commission members’ buy-in and work to keep it. At least one commission chair must tackle this tough job by instilling a sense of mutual pride in success and mutual shame for failure. It means constant exhortation in private and delicate but firm confirmation in public that every commissioner has a responsibility to the nation’s future. It means getting each and all to pledge formally to put the general interest above private interests and to agree to be judged by that standard. At the same time, early efforts of commissioners to play any type of blame game must be nipped in the bud and any failure jointly shared.
  2. Get the public and media behind your agenda.Pride for success and shame for failure require building public expectation. If the commission lays low because it knows it has a high probability of failure, it makes the odds even worse. If it takes the high ground, conducts very public hearings, and constantly asserts what will happen to the nation if the commission fails, then demand and expectations rise along with the probability of success.
  3. Make proposals that have lives of their own.The commission should aim for a report and proposals that carry weight and conviction—that continue to have life—even if Congress and the president fail to act. The report should gather momentum that is hard to resist long term, so any later failure of elected officials to act disappoints temporarily but does not destroy expectations. In this new commission’s particular case, many proposals should aim to reform the budget process over time. A list of one-time deficit-reduction actions simply won’t do.
  4. Hold off the political decisions until the end.This commission’s members have previously drawn lines, some quite arbitrary, in the sand: no tax increases, no benefit cuts, and so forth. The commission needs to hold off on the politics until the end so it can see just how much milk it can get from all the sacred cows. Don’t start off by picking tax increases or spending cuts. Instead, establish basic principles—equal justice, efficiency, growth, progressivity—and then attempt to discuss how each major option does or doesn’t further them. Opponents of spending cuts should still be required to rank what spending takes priority, just as the opponents of tax increases must still try to rank proposed tax increases.
  5. Don’t cherry-pick reforms off an option list; create packages of options.Decision-makers too often make budget deals simply by picking items off some list and then toting up the numbers to hit some deficit target. This one-at-a-time procedure often results in weaker-than-necessary combinations of policies. Legislators can remove a program that arbitrarily funds only one poor part of the nation and restore progressivity through other means. What the commission should want to know is the composite reform’s overall impact on efficiency and fairness—not each item’s impact.
  6. Start developing your story line and displays now, not when you’re about to issue a final report. One of the worst mistakes I see so many commissions and projects make is trying to develop a story line during the last few days when decisions are finally made. The story it tells the public should be accurate and fair, but it also needs to be well told to garner its support. And that requires a lot more work than an eleventh-hour all-nighter. As an example from tax reform in the mid-1980s, the distributional tables used before that time would have made it look like reform would hurt the poor (because people with huge incomes and huge tax shelters were being measured as “poor” when their shelters were netted against their other returns). As coordinator of that study, I set up a group to figure out how to change that display early on; there wouldn’t have been time at the end.

Success isn’t guaranteed by getting buy-in from commission members, building up public and media support of the agenda, putting out recommendations that take a life of their own, holding off the political decisions until the end, judging proposals as part of a package rather than as one-off decisions, and developing a story line up front. But such efforts clearly will increase the odds that the commission will achieve something good for the nation.

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