I was amazed to hear on Nov. 9 that the co-chairs of the bipartisan commission on reducing the national deficit had issued a detailed plan for doing just that. Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, offered a plan that was a mix of spending cuts (to domestic and military budgets), policy changes (gradually raising the age for Social Security benefits), tax reforms (goodbye mortgage interest deductions) and revenue increases (hiking the federal gas tax by 15 cents a gallon). While the plan wouldn’t eliminate the deficit, Simpson and Bowles said, it would bring it under control—assuming American citizens and their lawmakers were willing to take strong medicine.
It wasn’t the details of the plan, though, that surprised me. It was Simpson and Bowles’ decision to release their plan before the 18-member commission had finished its work. The commission had been given until the first week of December to make its recommendations, and under the rules laid down by legislation, if 14 of the 18 members agreed to a plan, it would automatically go to the Senate and House for a vote. Why hadn’t the co-chairs waited for the other 16 members, I wondered.
Background: I’ve managed blue-ribbon committees over the years. And my advice to committee chairs has been consistent: Stay focused on managing the process and trust that the group will come to good decisions. Be positive. If members argue, give them room for debate and make sure it doesn’t get personal. If some members grow impatient or frustrated, talk to them privately and do your best to keep them on board. When you see the group moving to common ground, call it to everyone’s attention and push for consensus and agreement. Most important, keep your opinions to yourself.
The model I’ve suggested to chairs was George Washington in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and others fought over the big issues. Washington rarely offered his own solutions, focusing instead on process and looking for areas of agreement. That has been my idea of a chair’s role. So why had two respected, experienced political leaders like Simpson and Bowles done things so differently with this commission? What was their goal? And would it work?
It took several weeks for the answers to reveal themselves. Some came in an hour-long interview with Simpson and Bowles on PBS’s “Charlie Rose” show on Nov. 16. Rose never asked the question I most wanted answered—“Why not wait for the commissioners to act?”—but the co-chairs’ thinking became clearer as they talked. (Important to know: 12 of the commission’s members were current senators or representatives.) Said Simpson, “When you have 12 of these 18 of us who are members of Congress, it is so tough for them” to act decisively. He added later, speaking for himself and Bowles, “We’re not going to put out some whitewash (plan) that’s just a bunch of principles.” Bowles agreed. “I think we had to lay a predicate out there that would force action by this Congress and future Congresses.”
Let me translate: The commission’s goal, as Simpson and Bowles interpreted it, was to lay out an honest plan for reducing the deficit. But honest plans, especially those prescribing the level of pain that deficit reduction would require, rarely get much support from risk-averse politicians. Most of the commission members were, ahem, risk-averse politicians. So rather than offering “whitewash that’s just a bunch of principles,” which is what Simpson and Bowles believed the commission would have done on its own, the co-chairs decided to lay out a “predicate” (a bold plan) that would at least get people talking.
It certainly did that—and more. When the Simpson-Bowles plan finally came to a vote on Dec. 1, many were surprised that a majority of commissioners (11 of the 18) voted for it, including six of the 12 elected officials. It was enough to win the commission’s formal recommendation, though not enough to require a vote in Congress.
But Simpson and Bowles weren’t aiming for a mostly symbolic vote in Congress. They wanted to shift public opinion and political discussion away from hand-wringing and empty resolutions and toward actions that would make a real difference. They knew that others on the committee would be reluctant to champion such things because of the political costs, and they were willing to take the heat themselves.
Did it work? Well, their plan was adopted with few changes and was probably more realistic than the commission would have drafted on its own. It made an important point: Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans could agree on deficit reductions, as long as they included some of each party’s ideas.
And it shifted the political discussion, at least for a while. Within days of the commission’s vote, politicians were talking openly about ideas that were previously taboo, like reducing the mortgage interest deduction and raising the age for Social Security. President Obama got on board, announcing that he had asked his economic advisers for ways of simplifying the tax code along the lines that Simpson and Bowles had suggested.
So, is it always wrong for blue-ribbon committee chairs to advance their own ideas, to “pull” the committee rather than “push” it? No, not always. The deficit reduction commission shows an important exception to the George Washington model. And that is when:
- The committee is charged with describing a course of action that will require serious sacrifices.
- Public discussions of the issue have been sidetracked by unrealistic expectations.
- For political reasons, members are reluctant to take the heat for recommending serious sacrifices.
- The chair or co-chairs are willing to take the heat themselves.
- The chair or co-chairs are reasonably sure that when the shock wears off, the committee will accept their core ideas.
In a way, what Simpson and Bowles did proves the larger point, that being chair is about putting the committee first. If you care more about a specific solution than you do about a successful process, you should be a member, not a chair. What Simpson and Bowles saw was a commission that wanted to do the right thing but feared the consequences. By stepping out front, they helped their blue-ribbon committee succeed, and that’s the highest calling of committee chairs.
Footnote: This is speculation, but my guess is that Simpson and Bowles told the other members what they were doing and, in the wink-and-nod environment of Washington, got their private blessings. The worst thing you can do in politics is surprise public officials. In reading the news articles after the plan was released, I saw no hint that other members were angry at the co-chairs’ actions. My bet: They weren’t because they knew it was coming.