Sen. Judd Gregg, (R-NH) and Sen. Kent Conrad, (D-ND)

This month, Congress will face every shopaholic’s worst nightmare: a maxed out credit card. After a year of seemingly endless government spending, the Senate must now vote to increase the limit on how much debt the federal government can carry. Lawmakers really have no option but to pass this unfortunate legislation, but the need to raise the debt limit should serve as a wake-up call to Washington to finally address this problem.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Ranking Member Judd Gregg (R-NH) have authored legislation which would create a commission to propose solutions to the federal government’s major spending problem. But as Heritage’ Stuart Butler points out in a recent paper, the Conrad-Gregg Commission is flawed such that it could produce more harm than good by its creation. Butler points out the main problems with the Conrad-Gregg legislation and explains why an alternative approach would better benefit the public and members of Congress:

  • No Public Involvement. The timeline set by the Conrad-Gregg commission would severely limit participation by the American public. Public involvement is key to a discussion on such a crucial aspect of government, yet the commission would produce its findings right after the 2010 election in November and require Congress to vote on December 23. This bars participation by newly elected officials while allowing ousted members to vote, completely disregarding the will of the electorate.Instead, Congress should strive to fully include the American people in discussing budgetary reform. This should include providing Americans with background information, then allowing them to participate and voice their concerns and opinions on the options. Once a consensus of public opinion is established, the commission should use the direction provided by the American people to outline the legislative package it presents to Congress. Congress should also recognize that, as fiscal issues make their way to the top of citizens’ concerns, the results of the next election will produce a clear picture of Americans’ wishes. According to Butler, the 2010 election “is very likely to be in part a referendum on the economic and fiscal state of the country”. Delaying decision-making until newly elected members of Congress arrive in Washington would further include voters in the process.
  • No Alternative “Scorekeepers”. The Conrad-Gregg commission does not allow consideration of alternative projections of the legislation they propose. Rather, Congress’ own scorekeepers, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, would be solely responsible for producing long-term projections of the commission’s proposals. Both sides of the aisle have complaints with the assumptions and methodology employed by these bodies. To create a clearer picture of the consequences of the commission’s proposals, both the minority and the majority should be allowed to use additional sources to obtain estimates of the long-term effects of the proposals.
  • No Assured Voice for the Minority. Many fear that the result of a commission exploring budgetary reform will be nothing but increased taxes without curbed spending. Under the Conrad-Gregg commission, which lacks the necessary safeguards against proposals adhering to strongly ideological viewpoint, this could be the case. According to Butler, the Conrad-Gregg commission would give the minority limited rights to object or propose alternatives. This is because only the commission’s proposal would be considered by Congress. To insure that both sides are well-represented in the decision-making process, the chairman of the budget committee in each chamber, along with the ranking member, should be allowed to present an alternative to what is offered by the commission. This would expand the options available to Congress by allowing several views to be considered.

The debt ceiling vote presents the rare opportunity for lawmakers to amend the budget process and take control of looming fiscal crisis. But in order for Congress to succeed in this endeavor, a commission must be done right. Unfortunately, the Conrad-Gregg commission, the only legislation currently under serious consideration, is not the right approach.