Breaking the Entitlements Deadlock with a Presidential Commission

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Breaking the Entitlements Deadlock with a Presidential Commission

November 13, 1985 15 min read Download Report
S. Moore
S. Moore
McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy


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469 November 13, 1985 BREAKING THE ENTITLEMENTS DEADLOCK WITH A PRESIDENTIAL COMMISSION INTRODUCTION Few issues ignite as much heated discussion among politicians as Unlike most other programs whose costs are set entitlement.programs by Congress, enti tlements are provided for all those who satisfy eligibility criteria. Conservatives argue that-this has led to uncontrollable and rapidly expanding outlays with questionable results. Liberals maintain that Congress cannot arbitrarily cap basic human servi ce programs. This dispute has deadlocked Congress preventing the fashioning of an entitlement policy that combines sound responsibilities.

The means may be, as with other politically thorny issues, a presidential bipartisan commission.

Experience shows that a commission with clear guidelines and ground rules can reach the agreement on sensitive issues that often eludes Congress.

There is no guarantee, of course, that a commission will be effective. For one thing, its recommendations can be ignored if they are not carefully planned. For example, Ronald Reagan's 1981 National Productivity Advisory Commission and his 1982 Task Force on Private thing a commiss.ion can steer policy in the wrong direction; the Greenspan Commission on Social S ecurity is considered by many to have done just this.

White House hinged on the findings of commissions. Key Administration foreign policy and defense initiatives, for instance, were assisted by the Kissingar Commission and Scowcroft Commission analyses ma y be able to duplicate these important achievements in the difficult budget control with the discharge of appropriate federal I I This deadlock must be broken.

I I I I Sector Initiatives changed public policy very little. For another I On the other hand, several legislative victories of the Reagan Reagan field of entitlements by using a bipartisan commission-if he has learned from experience HOW DO COMMISSIONS CONTRIBUTE TO THE POLITICAL PROCESS?

Commissions can help resolve policy disputes and aid the passage of legislation in five ways 1) Become a snrincfboard for ieaislative action.

Commissions can boost innovative policy ideas that otherwise are deemed politically impractical for a proposal, a commission can force the hands of congressional leaders--e ncouraging them to allow debate and give tacit support to the proposal or else appear,unyielding or impervious to change.

Political independence confers unique benefits to the commission. Example: It can bypass the typical bureaucratic and political roadblocks to change the springboard for some of the most dramatic shifts in public policy in recent history.

Aldrich Commission, for instance, led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve System. Harry Truman established a commission to build support in Co ngress and the public for an economic aid package to assist the ailing economies of postwar democracies. The result: the Marshall Plan. And Lyndon Johnson relied heavily on task force findings to build support for his Great Society programs greatly facili t ates subsequent congressional approval shows, in over 80 percent of the cases where the president has proposed measures based upon the recommendations of a commission, the legislation was enacted rates over the same period for all domestic presidential in i tiatives of just 46 percent. An equally important finding: over two-thirds of the commissions appointed between 1948 apd 1973 saw at least one of their principal recommendations adopted blue-ribbon commission clearly provide a strong motivation for change By demonstrating bipartisan support Presidential commissions have been The reaommendations of Franklin Roosevelt's The endorsement' of a policy proposal by a bipartisan commission As Table 1 This contrasts with presidential success The recommendations of a 2) Break a leaislative loaiam'.

Presidential commissions are particularly effective in settling seemingly irreconcilable disputes within an administration or Congress 1. Thomas R. Wolanin, Presidential Advisorv Commissions (Madison: University of Wiscons in Press, 1981 p. 138 2where politicians recognize the need for a change in policy, yet advocates on each side of the issue refuse to yield ground. Reagan's Scowcroft Commission on the MX missile was successful precisely because it crafted a politically a c ceptable compromise, thereby disentangling a hopeless three-year legislative stalemate cases the commission's recommendations become a "package" by which each side swallows something it does not want. Yet accepting independent" commission findings allows p oliticians to escape losing face In such TABLE 1 ACTION TAKEN ON RECOMMENDATIONS OF 51 COMMISSIONS SUPPORTED BY PRESIDENTS TRUMAN THROUGH FORD POLICY RESPONSE Legislation Enacted An Administrative Change Adopted Legislation -Enacted and an Administrative Change Adopted No Action Taken 50 PERCENT OF COMMISSIONS 82 42 12 3) Sow seeds for later policv adoption.

American political institutions seldom respond rapidly to presidential or public demands for new policy directions. But a commission can accelerate th e pace of debate by injecting radical proposals into the mainstream of the debate through what London School of Economics political scientist Martin Bulmer calls ''the legitimization function of commissions The most famous example of this is Truman's Comm i ttee on Civil Rights. Its recommendations were the initial impetus for the civil rights legislation adopted nearly twenty years later. Likewise, the I I 2. Data for Table' 1 from Terrence R. Tutchings, Rhetoric and Realitv: Presidential Commissions and th e Makine. of Public Policv (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979 pp. 75-77 3-recommendations of E,senhower's Commission on migration and Naturalization were reflected later in the 1965 immigration laws 4) Prevent nassaae of potentiallv damaaina leaislat ion.

In some instances, commissions play an important defensive role In the mid-l960s by presenting a scientific and dispassionate analysis of a crisis that reduces public demand for ill-conceived policies for instance congressmen called for legislation de signed to combat the I'pernicious effects of automation To counter mounting public support for such damaging legislation, Lyndon Johnson named a National Commission on Technology,.,Automation, and Economic Progress. The Commission was asked to assess the m erits of prescriptive legislation. Its findings that automation does not reduce the total number of jobs helped defuse the issue scientist Thomas Wolanin, an expert on presidential commissions, Itin the AFL-CIO Platform Proposals, technological change is admitted to be inevitable and usually desirable Its By 1968, writes political 5) Build coalitions to challenae Dowerful interests.

The American political system favors large interest groups that devote considerable resources to lobbying a small number of s pecific issues. In contrast, the general public is underrepresented on most matters because its resources are widely and thinly spread political anomaly often enables interest groups to block or pursue legislation without regard to the general welfare.

Co mmissions can alter the political dynamics in such cases By assuring that the public is fairly represented on the panel, a coalition of individually weak groups can be woven to a concentrated challenge to the interests of a powerful lobby reasoning behind Eisenhower's Commission on Veterans' Pensions, in response to the demands of World War I veterans for vastly increased pensions. Given the veterans' considerable political clout and a sympathetic'-press, it.-could have been damaging politically to oppose t hese demands. Eisenhowerls antidote was an independent commission which demonstrated to the public.that the veterans' demands were unreasonable This This was the REAGAN COMMISSIONS: SUCCESSES, FAILURES AND LESSONS LEARNED Policy was affected by three of R e agan's first-term commissions 3. Wolanin, OD. cit p. 147 4. Ibid p. 19. the Greenspan Commission on Social Security, the Scowcroft Commission on strategic missiles, and the Kissinger Commission on Central America. The latter two yielded conclusions that w e re workable and innovative, while the first failed to develop a.long-term solution to the Social Security crisis. Each of these commissions teaches important lessons for fine-tuning the commission strategy. Their combined record suggests a framework for a commission on entitlements.

The Social Securitv Commission The bipartisan Social Security Commission was appointed by Reagan in September 1982 to devise solutions to the Social Security financing crisis ideas to restructure the entire retirement program, such as phasing in a private system based on Individual Retirement Accounts. Instead, the Commission avoided a solution and chose a short-term compromise: it recommended forcing new categories of workers to contribute to Social Security, a hike in taxes, and modest benefit reductions . By bringing new workers into the system, it merely strengthened the constituency supporting the existing system, making fundamental reform all the more difficult. The only winners were the politicians, who were temporarily off the hook of finding a lasti n g solution to the problem The Coxjmission had a unique opportunity to float innovative The Sqcial Security Commission failed to recommend innovative solutions for two reasons. First, the White House selected panelists who came to the bargaining table with a powerful desire to defend the status QUO and to shun new approaches to.the problem. Many commission members had been senior officials in the system itself including Robert Ball, the Social Security Commissioner from 1962 to 1973, and Congressman Claude Pepper D-FL a leading advocate of Social Security. The membership of the Commission virtually guaranteed that its recommendations would not challenge the essential structure of the system.

The second reason for the Greenspan Commission's failure to conside r a long-term solution were the Administration-set ground rules. The members quickly realized that the White House and Congress already had agreed informally on some combination of tax increases and benefit cuts. Hence, the Social Security Commission mere ly relieved a congressional logjam, rather than serving as a bipartisan task force to build support for an innovative solution.

The Scowcroft Commission In stark contrast to the Greenspan Commiss'ion, the Scowcroft Commission was a model of success: it cra fted a political compromise truly bipartisan in nature, which nonetheless gave the President what he desperately wanted--congressional funding of the MX missile. The Administration consistently had been falling 50 to 100 votes short of 5approval for the M X in the House of Representatives. The Pentagon State Department, National Security Council, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency each had failed to move CongrGss. The Scowcroft Commission succeeded, crafting a compromise that secured for Reagan eno ugh votes to win congressional approval.

Accounting for the Commissionls success were 1) The logjam lent itself perfectly to a bipartisan panel compromise. The lfScowcroft Commission succeeded," write political scientists Mark Greenberg and Rachel Flick in the Journal of Contemnorarv Studies, I1precisely because it was a commission. Any similar plan emanating from an executive agency would have beyond doubt been rejected by Congress.11 Reagan recognized that, if a bipartisan group would recommend the MX, t h en pressure would mount on lawmakers to accept the compromise 2) Reagan named a strong chairman, Brent Scowcroft. The chairman kept his objective firmly in sight inclusion of the Mx in any Commission compromise, but also demanded that whatever package was eventually released must be politically palatable to congressional.opponents of the MX. The Commission remained focused upon a clear and specific goal and sensitive to political realities in working to attain that goal He not only insisted upon the The Ki ssincrer Commission The Kissinger Commission was appointed in 1983' to forge a policy consensus on U.S. military and economic strategy in Central America.

After studying conditions in that region, it concluded unanimously that the troubles in Central Ameri ca directly threatened U.S security. It endorsed a llsubstantialll increase in military aid to El Salvador and continued covert aid to anticommunist rebels in Nicaragua The Commission's unanimity was critical to its political success. A bipartisan unanimo u s consensus was hard to oppose in Congress. Its way was paved by the careful selection of well-respected and open-minded Democrats to the Commission--such as San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros and AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. Recalls political consultan t and Commission member Richard M. Scammon, compromise was critically aided by Reagan's selection of members at the very least llsympathetic to the Kennan dogma of containment. This similarity in philosophy led to agreement on broad general policy.

Another key to its success was that disputes on specific technical issues were not allowed to interfere with the objective of 5. Telephone conversation with Richard M. Scammon, September 1985 6reaching a consensus.. Dissents were published as footnotes to the fi n al report, while the commission wisely focused on ironing out differences in areas where agreement could be reached CREATING A BIPARTISAN COMMISSION ON ENTITLEMENTS The Need for a Commission The term I1entitlementsl1 designates a wide variety of federal t r ansfer payments to individuals, including social insurance programs and low-income benefit programs An entitlement program provides benefits to,any individual who meets the eligibility criteria established by law. Such programs now constitute the largest s egment of the federal budget; for FY 1986, the Office of Management and Budget allocates 41 cents of every federal dollar spent for direct benefit payments to individuals By including outlays for other mandatory programs of which the spending levels are d e termined by specific eligibility criteria, such as farm price supports, this figure rises to 43 cents of every dollar. Roughly one in three Americans receives direct personal benefits from the federal government Spending for entitlements has grown rapidly in recent decades.

These rates of growth cannot be sustained. Between 1954 and 1981 means-tested benefit programs increased' by more than 1,000 percent in real terms, from $6.2 billion in 1954 to $68 billion in 1981 (1985 constant dollars Outlays on Socia l Security, unemployment insurance, federal pensions, and similar programs grew, in real terms from $26 billion to $267 billion over the same period together, these programs comprised only 2.2 percent of GNP in 1954 but accounted for 9.5 percent in 1981 T aken The Office of Management and Budget estimates that outlays for entitlements and similar mandatory programs will rise from $418 billion in 1985 to $438 billion in 1986, reaching $500 billion by 19

88. Thus far, the Reagan Administration has succeeded only in leveling the growth in needs-based entitlements, but not the entitlement features of social insurance, agriculture, and other social programs.

Observes Stuart Eizenstat, domestic policy adviser to Jimmy Carter: "after eight years of the most conser vative presidency we've ever had...the basic structure of the American welfare state will be significantly intact I6 Hugh Heclo, professor of government at 6. The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 1985 7Harvard University, goes further The welfare state ha s been consolidated, in part by making it more viable and workable.Iw7 Marginal budget cutting of entitlements has not and will not solve the problem. What is needed is a fundamental reassessment of federal obligations and a corresponding restructuring of f ederal programs unable-to tackle this explosive issue, a Commission on Entitlements may be able to do so Since Congress is clearly unwilling--or politically Guidelines for the Commission A commission on entitlements needs to seek innovative strategies in s ocial policy. The President should model it after the successful Kissinger and Scowcroft Commissions, avoiding the shortcomings of the Social Security Commission A number of guidelines would increase the chances for a syccessful Commission. Among them 1 S e lect members who have demonstrated an abilitv to develop innovative ideas A sad lesson of the Social Security Commission is that there is little benefit in reaching a consensus if it means avoiding a solution A commitment to reexamine the fundamental stru c ture of entitlement programs must be the litmus test for all commission members the problem congressional approval of new measures, but rather transmitting new ideas into the debate ds the first step to legislative reform They must be willing to challenge conventional approaches to The primary objective of the commission may not be quick 2) Select members attuned to the Dolitical practicality of their f indinas Commission members should be highly sensitive to the political factors of the.issue.

Commissions is that it is only half of a commission's task to overcome technical barriers; the other half is to sidestep political A lesson of the Scowcroft and Kissinger obstacles solutions to be successful, writes Thomas Wolanin, the President must select particip a nts who will ''make their case forcefully without waving red flags that will arouse and mobilize strong opposition in the Congress or the bureaucracy I8 For a commission that will be advocating innovative 7. Ibid 8. Wolanin, OD. cit, p. 187 a3) Avoid sele ctina zealots.

While the Commission's membership should consist of members representing the various constituencies affected by the issue, a broad consensus is virtually impossible to achieve with irreconcilable extremists. Richard Scammon, who has sat on a number of presidential commissions, emphasizes that ''keeping zealots off the commtssionll .is perhaps the most important'factor in reaching a consensus 4) Conaress must be renresented.

Selecting members of Congress as Commission participants pays obviou s practical dividends panel. More important, if Reagan can entice ltnew-idea1' Democrats to join a commission to reform entitlement programs, he could preempt subsequent grounds for Democratic opposition when it came time to enact the recommendations. Con g ressional leaders would hesitate to reject the recommendations of a bipartisan group containing respected members of Congress It lends prestige and credibility to the 5) Assure the Commission's autonomv A number of past presidential commissions have been c oopted by government agency officials who have aggressively opposed recommendations that would reduce the power of the existing bureaucratic structure. Lyndon Johnson deliberately kept .agency officials off his task forces, recognizing their predispositio n to tell him that nothing could be done or send him.warmed over proposa that they had had in their desks for the last twenty years Commissions are often successful precisely because they offer the detached and independent approaches of outsiders to a prob lem.

Appointing agency officials or those who have past connections with the bureaucracy (as in the case of the Greenspan Commission sacrifices this 1 s 6) Limit and focus the Commission acrenda.

A recent General Accounting Office evaluation of commission recommendations faulted the final reports of commissions as being too general to provide Congress with clear proposals to act upon when commissions have issued recommendations with specific legis l ative proposals, the congressional response has been better. The Scowcroft Commission, for example, presented a detailed legislative package for the Administration to hand to Congress. By contrast, the 1969 National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence made broad recommendations involving a reorganization of the criminal justice Yet 9. Telephone conversation with Richard M. Scammon, September 1985 9system. It offered few specific policy directives, and its findings were largely ignored.

A pr esident can focus the commission's activity, not only by This order allows a president to determine what will be on the He thus selecting its members but also through the presidential order creating it commission's agenda and what will be kept off the tab le should bar a commission on entitlements from tinkering with taxes, for instance, since the Administration has already rejected tax increases to llsolve'l the entitlement problem.


Rather than attempting to e valuate the "success1' or l1failure of individual programs, the Commission should undertake a major reevaluation of the role of the federal government in assuring the socialswelfare of its citizens. While it should be assumed that the government should'pl ay-a-key wel-fare role, the commission must have an open mind on whether the government necessarily must be the direct provider of services.

At the very least, the Commission should consider the following issues 1) What is the pumose of entitlements?.

As currently constituted, entitlements fall into at least three categories: promoting economic policy goals (for instance, farm aid job training); social insurance (pensions, medical care); and welfare aid to the poor and handicapped While there is some over lap, most programs have at least one overriding goal various entitlement programs by goal would help to develop a broad overview of federal social policy Simply listing the 2) How can the specific entitlement policv soals be reached most efficientlv?

If a government mechanism can enable the private sector'to take care of some part of a problem, as in the case of Individual Retirement Accounts, the best federal intervention may be'a system of incentives and mandatory standards within the private sector rath e r than a bureaucratized system of transfers partnerships in achieving goals should be explored. The implications of this for federal financing should be carefully considered Private-public 3) If individuals are "entitled1' to benefits from society. to wha t is societv entitled in exchanse? What is the social benefit of particular entitlements i 10 In the case of veterans' benefits and Social Security, the benefit is paid because an individual has met service or contribution criteria. But is this return comm e nsurate with the contribution of service? Or,is part of this payment hidden welfare? While transfers to the handicapped and the needy elderly might be viewed, quite properly, as a one-way transaction, should assistance to the able-bodied be grounded on th e principle of reciprocal obligations levels of aovernment 4) How should responsibilities be divided amona the various The proper level of government for delivering services almost always is that closest to the people so long as it can ensure that the job g ets done and population characteristics of the state, should be the preferred form of federal assistance-rather than individual entitlements or categorical grants. This would enable more flexibility in dealing with social problems, which invariably have l ocal characteristics Perhaps block grants to states, based on the income 5) To what dearee do entitlement proarams foster American values. such as individual freedom, social responsibilitv. the work ethic. and personal independence?

The effect programs hav e on the family and communities should be explored. The issue of whether people are consumers of services or clients of a bureaucracy also needs to be addressed consideration should be given to whether programs concentrate power into the hands of particul ar groups (of service providers, for example) which results in rigidities and a lack of innovation in meeting individuals' needs And 6) Should the various federal entitlement proarams that have the same croal be consolidated?

Merging might yield great savi ngs and deliver more aid to recipients. But it could have an extraordinary effect on federal agencies. Folding the food stamp program into Aid for Families with Dependent Children and Supplemental Security Income, for example could temporarily increase'th e Health and Human Services bureaucracy but significantly shrink the Department of Agriculture CONCLUSION Bipartisan commissions have played a prominent role in the policy formation process in recent years. On some tough issues, such as funding for the MX m issile and U.S. foreign policy in Central America Congress had grown seemingly incapable of acting, and in these cases the recommendations of a presidential blue-ribbon panel spurred movement on the political front 11 I Commissions should not be viewed as substitutes for active government response to a crisis bipartisan nature, blue-ribbon panels have become instruments for change in a political and bureaucratic climate that is increasingly resistant to new ways of thinking. Commissions may be one of the f e w government initiatives where the public receives more than its money's worth. while the Kissinger Commission cost 230,000 proposals once they have received a blue-ribbon panel imprimatur. Few issues before Congress could benefit more from such a decisiv e step to reform policy than the sensitive matter of entitlement spending To the contrary. By virtue of their The Scowcroft' Commission cost the taxpayers only 200,000 Congress seems willing to respond favorably toward constructive S. Anna Kondratas Schult z Senior Policy Analyst and Stephen Moore Policy Analyst 12


S. Moore
S. Moore

McKenna Senior Fellow in Political Economy