For the last week, the media has been focused on the Petraeus scandal (which, admittedly, is a pretty solid sex scandal, complete with a classic New York Post headline, although “Cloak and Shag Her” does not quite reach the epic heights of, say, the Post’s Spitzer scandal masterpiece.) Now it is focusing on the conflict in Israel. But attention will soon return in full to the impending “fiscal cliff” or the huge amount of tax increases and spending cuts that will automatically occur in January unless legislation is passed. I won’t venture any thoughts about the substance of these negotiations, but I will discuss what the election can tell us about the likely success of different procedures Congress might use to come to a deal.
One solution that frequently gets made to either the tax or spending parts of the cliff is a “kick the can” solution, in which some cuts and tax increases are made today and then a commission of some sort – a blue ribbon panel of experts or congressional leaders – will propose a more lasting solution in due time. Over the past 30 or so years, we have seen some version of the same strategy in lots of areas (perhaps the most famous is the BRAC base closing commission) in lots of different procedural forms. The concept is that the commission will bring some proposal to Congress that it would not have come up with on its own but that will be able to get a majority vote. Of course, the fiscal cliff is a product of such commissions – first Simpson-Bowles and then the Super Committee – each of which were tasked with coming up with some kind of grand bargain on taxes and spending but failed, the latter despite the upcoming unattractive to both sides sequester spending cuts that were intended to drive them to make a deal. Yet the idea of a successful commission, full of sober gray-haired wise men, still dominates the fantasies of at least some of Washington’s budget elite.
One lesson we can take from the election is that such a fiscal commission is unlikely to solve the problem. The argument – continued below – requires a little bit of positive political theory. But the basic idea is pretty simple. The success of commissions is predicated on the idea that there exist latent majorities in Congress that are not reached because of the agenda control of Speaker and Majority Leader. Whether this is due to Arrovian cycling or Weingast-style distributive politics or something else, commissions are meant to create a focal point or new cycling choice that Congress would not reach on its own but that can get a majority vote. In the 1970s and 80s, there was a great deal of space for these types of commissions to work because the differences between the parties on most major issues were not so clearly defined, party line voting in Congress (and the electorate) had ebbed, and preferences on a number of issues did not track the main dimension of partisan competition.
But the election produced more polarized parties and majority (and minority) caucuses in Congress with Members that are very similar to one another and that agree on a greater number of issues (i.e. preferences are more unidimensional). The result of this is that there are likely few latent majorities. While Congress may decide to create a commission or a panel of experts, or some binding targets or some other fixed procedural tool, such methods are unlikely to create a long-term deal. The election (and the several elections that proceeded this one) created a very strong party system. And the result of such a system is that there are few (and maybe zero) deals other than those that President Obama, Sen. Reid and Rep. Boehner can make, on the fiscal cliff or anything else. Commissions, Gangs of Senators, etc. are tools that may have worked in previous Congresses and on certain types of issues, but they are unlikely to play a useful role in today’s Congress.