Lame-duck Congress can ignore fiscal commission — and should

Phil Kerpen President, American Commitment
Font Size:

Nearly every major media outlet is reporting that if the president’s fiscal commission gets agreement among 14 of its 18 members, it will force a vote in Congress.  They are wrong.

A little history is in order.  On January 26, 2010, the U.S. Senate decisively rejected the original Conrad-Gregg proposal for a fiscal commission.  Many Republicans voted no out of concerns that the panel would recommend unprecedented tax hikes — a concern that has been proven correct by the chairmen’s recently-released proposals.

On February 18, 2010, President Obama disregarded that vote and created his own commission by issuing Executive Order 13531.  But an executive order cannot prompt Congress to act.  It is merely advisory.

Therefore the final recommendations, with 14 votes, would carry no greater legal weight than the chairmen’s draft, and certainly no ability to prompt Congress to act.

I inquired with the fiscal commission about the claim that a final report would trigger votes in Congress, and they provided a letter from Vice President Joe Biden to Kent Conrad relaying a promise from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to take up the commission’s recommendation before the end of this Congress.  But a promise from Reid and Pelosi — via Biden — is far from a binding fast-track procedure.  There are dozens of other issues on which Reid has promised votes in the lame-duck session that are unlikely to happen.

Moreover, as much as Reid can commit to a vote, Sen. Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans can — and should — commit to block one.  There is no justification for Congress forcing through massive tax hikes and Social Security changes with limited public scrutiny under any circumstances. But to do it in a matter of weeks over the holiday season? In a body full of people who already lost re-election? Without the benefit of proper hearings or committee action?

Americans want a budget balanced through spending cuts and real reforms, not higher gas taxes, payroll taxes, and the reduction of their home mortgage interest and charitable contribution deductions.

The deficit commission is 18 unelected, unaccountable individuals who deliberated largely behind closed doors. Their approach to Social Security makes a bad deal for workers even worse by raising taxes and cutting benefits.  Real reform would raise benefits by harnessing the power of real investment returns.

Congress should recognize that not only is a lame-duck session no time to force through the commission’s recommendations, but it is an inappropriate time for any significant policy changes. This Congress should simply extend current policy on taxes and spending until the newly elected Congress can be seated and go home. The people’s elected representatives can take up the many serious issues the country faces next year, and do it the right way.

Mr. Kerpen is vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity.