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Can the Government Commission National Security and Budgetary Reform? December 1, 2009

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Each Tuesday BFAD features a guest blogger- these are experts from a variety of backgrounds writing about what they know best.  This week features Dr. Jordan Tama, Assistant Professor at American University. 

Can the Government Commission National Security and Budgetary Reform?

by Jordan Tama

In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has created an independent review board to investigate policy failures related to the massacre of 13 people at Fort Hood, Congress has enacted legislation to expand the membership and duties of an independent panel set up to assess the Quadrennial Defense Review, and congressional and White House officials have discussed creating a commission that would propose measures for reducing the enormous federal deficit.

This flurry of activity raises two important questions: 1) Do independent panels tend to influence federal spending and other government policies, particularly on national security issues? 2) Should we expect these new commissions to catalyze reform?

My own research on commissions offers answers to these questions. In my Ph.D. dissertation, From Crisis to Reform: How Commissions on National Security and Terrorism Can Trigger Change, I investigated the impact of 51 government-sponsored commissions that probed issues ranging from counterterrorism policy, to the role of women in the armed services, to the Iraq war.

Although the conventional wisdom about commissions is that they do not lead to reform, I found that many of these panels sparked important policy changes. For instance:

  • The 1986 Packard Commission on defense management shaped key elements of the Goldwater-Nichols Act.
  • The 2001 Hart-Rudman Commission spurred the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The 9/11 Commission triggered the 2004 reorganization that placed a new Director of National Intelligence atop the nation’s 15 intelligence agencies.

In addition, panels have triggered important changes in national security spending. For example, commissions chaired by retired admirals Bobby Inman and William Crowe catalyzed sharp increases in funding for diplomatic security after deadly bombings at American embassies in the early 1980s and 1998.

The influence of these various commissions was all the more remarkable considering that they lacked any authority to implement their recommendations. I found that commissions can have this extraordinary impact because of their distinct political credibility, which can enable them to overcome the extreme partisanship and turf protection that so often stymie reform efforts.

I also found, however, that only certain types of commissions are likely to catalyze change. Panels are much more likely to influence policy when they are created in the wake of a disaster or scandal, because such a crisis creates a window of opportunity for reform by placing pressure on policymakers to make changes. Commissions are also more likely to spark reform when they are established by the executive branch, rather than Congress, and given a narrow mandate. This is because executive branch commissions can be formed quickly, enabling them to report while the window of opportunity remains open, and only commissions of limited scope tend to be able to reach consensus on highly specific proposals and lobby key policymakers effectively.

So, what do my findings imply about the commissions being created today?

The Fort Hood Review Board

My findings suggest that the Fort Hood review board is likely to spur significant reforms in areas such as the sharing of information about, and treatment of, personnel that might pose a security risk. The review board, headed by former Army Secretary Togo West and former Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark, has all of the attributes that tend to facilitate impact: creation in response to a crisis, formation by the executive, and a narrow mandate. Gates has given the board the relatively limited charge of reviewing possible weaknesses in Defense Department policies, programs, and procedures related to the Fort Hood killings. Gates has also ordered the board to report within 45 days—a short time frame that ensures the panel will issue its recommendations before the window of opportunity for reform closes.

The board will probably trigger reform because the administration now faces political pressure to make changes—as is typically the case after a crisis. Just two days before Gates established the board, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee opened its own investigation into the Fort Hood murders. Gates most likely formed the review board in part to preempt this congressional investigation.

When the board reports, Gates will have a strong incentive to adopt the panel’s recommendations in order to demonstrate to Congress that the administration is doing everything possible to reduce the chance that such a massacre will happen again. In this way, the board, like many crisis commissions, will probably have a substantial impact on policy, even though it was probably formed mainly for political reasons.

The QDR Independent Panel

The outcome of the independent panel created to assess the QDR is likely to be quite different—because it is being established for different reasons and in a different way. While the Fort Hood review board is a classic crisis commission, I consider the QDR independent panel to be an “agenda commission” because it was established in the absence of a crisis to advance a policy agenda.

In particular, the panel was created at the behest of leaders of the congressional armed services committees with the goal of providing a counterweight to the QDR, which is run entirely by the Defense Department. The independent panel’s legislative mandate is to “conduct an assessment of the assumptions, strategy, findings, and risks in the report of the Secretary of Defense on the 2009 QDR, with particular attention paid to the risks described in that report.”

This focus on risks reveals the principal motivation of the armed services committees in establishing the panel: to highlight the dangers of reducing or stabilizing the defense budget. Pentagon officials have said that, for initial planning purposes, the QDR should assume that the base defense budget will be essentially flat for the next five years, when accounting for inflation. Given that budgetary framework, the QDR will probably propose cuts to major defense programs. Many members of the armed services committees—regardless of party affiliation—are likely to oppose some of these proposed cuts. The committees’ hope is that the independent panel will bolster opposition to such cuts by calling them risky.

However, the more likely outcome of the independent panel is that it will fail to reach consensus on a clear statement of support for, or opposition to, the QDR. Twelve of the committee’s 20 members will be appointed by Gates, while the other eight members will be appointed by the chairmen and ranking members of the armed services committees. Gates is likely to name members who share his goal of reducing spending on legacy systems, while the committee leaders are likely to appoint members who favor increasing defense spending and procuring more traditional platforms. This will probably lead to a divided panel that will either fail to reach consensus or will only reach consensus on vague conclusions and proposals. As a result, the panel is unlikely to change the debate over the QDR dramatically.

A Deficit Commission

Finally, there’s the intriguing idea of creating the mother of all commissions: a panel given the goal of reducing the country’s huge federal deficit. A group of congressional budget hawks, led by Senators Kent Conrad and Judd Gregg, have proposed forming a commission that would make proposals designed to reduce spending or increase federal revenue throughout the government. Unlike most advisory panels, this commission would have the special power possessed by Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commissions: Congress would have to vote on its recommendations on a straight yes-or-no vote, without the possibility of amending the commission’s proposals. Conrad, Gregg, and their allies realize that reducing Congress’ flexibility in this manner is the only way to induce Congress to approve politically painful tax hikes and spending cuts (just as it’s the only way to induce Congress to approve base closures).

Could such a commission actually close the gaping federal deficit? Yes, if it’s actually established, given BRAC-like power, and composed predominantly of budget hawks. But those are very big ifs. Many powerful members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, oppose forming a deficit commission with BRAC-like power because they do not want to be pressured by a commission to enact spending cuts or tax increases. Moreover, even if the commission were established, its members would consist primarily of sitting members of Congress or people appointed by congressional leaders—meaning they would not necessarily favor the tough steps necessary to balance the federal budget.

The deficit commission idea, like the QDR independent panel, reveals the limitations of agenda commissions, particularly ones created by Congress. However, there is one event on the horizon that holds some small promise of catalyzing action on the long-term deficit: America’s growing federal debt is scheduled to exceed its current ceiling of $12.1 billion before the end of the year. This could force the United States to default on its debt, unless Congress acts to raise the debt ceiling. Perhaps the prospect of America going bankrupt will be enough to spark a serious effort to get the deficit under control. But I won’t hold my breath.

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