Sins of Commission

In stacking the nominally bipartisan social security commission with members all committed to some form of privatization, this mandateless president seeks to advance one of his top campaign promises. But he also debases the concept of a presidential commission as it has been used historically. In an increasingly polarized environment, the man who called himself "a uniter" misuses one of the few instruments for mobilizing consensus.

The typical commission assembles wide representation from the leadership of affected interests to study particularly divisive problems or events. Democrats and Republicans, business and labor leaders, conservatives and liberals are charged with sorting out the facts, identifying the meaning of those facts, and coming up with recommendations. Experts may be included on the commission itself as well as on the staff. The commission buys time and potentially mobilizes support for a consensus. The simple idea is that if a panel that comprises a broad cross section of interests can agree, its perspective deserves more than ordinary consideration.

For most of our history, presidents have used commissions to respond to crises, address highly technical subjects, generate new policy ideas, educate the nation, and build popular support for programs. Theodore Roosevelt, inspired by Britain's use of the Royal Commission, appointed the Aldrich Commission, whose recommendations led to establishment of the Federal Reserve System. Franklin D. Roosevelt employed the findings of the President's Committee on Administrative Management to create the modern structure of the office of the president. The current organization of the executive branch derived directly from the work of the two Hoover Commissions, appointed by Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. President Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Income Maintenance and Richard Nixon's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force offered policy advice that was adopted to varying degrees.

In Commission Politics, our study of riot commissions going back to the nineteenth century, we found that virtually every major episode of racial violence in the United States was followed by the appointment of a commission to assess the facts and make recommendations. The primary purpose of the nation's chief executives may have been to restore order and postpone the need to make decisions until the prevailing structures of power were restored, but commissions also framed new understandings. Aside from An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal's famous foundation-sponsored report of 1944, the most incisive assessments of American race relations have been commission reports such as the LaGuardia Commission's on the Harlem riot of 1935 and the Kerner Commission's of 1968. (It was the Kerner Commission that made it respectable to declare what most blacks already knew: The underlying structural cause of urban racial unrest was white racism.)

For all these commissions, a balanced membership was an essential ingredient in encouraging public support for their findings. This is why there is something Orwellian about the structuring of Bush's Social Security commission, which is composed entirely of supporters of privatization--who represent only one side of the issue most in dispute. President Bush, of course, has the right to seek consensus on the best approach to one of his favorite ideas. But call it a working group or an advisory panel, not a commission.

Franklin Roosevelt, for example, appointed a committee on economic security headed by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. That panel devised the outlines of what became Social Security. Like Bush, FDR knew roughly what he wanted, going in. But FDR had a popular mandate; Bush does not. This may account for his effort to cloak his advisory committee in the mantle of a bipartisan commission.

If history is any guide, we may soon see the creation of a "countercommission" dedicated to finding the opposite of what the president's commission is virtually ordered to conclude. (It might find that all forms of Social Security privatization are too risky, too destructive of social insurance, or too expensive.) Such countercommissions were established in New Jersey and Wisconsin in 1969 when groups in those states believed that the "official" commissions on racial unrest were unlikely to come to the "correct" conclusions.

Given the absence of dissenters on the president's official panel to challenge its dubious assumptions, a countercommission on Social Security might very well be necessary.

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