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That’s Not How the BRAC Commission Worked: No Up or Down Vote but Silent Approval

Romina Boccia

Former Senator Rob Portman (R‑OH).

I’ve excitedly been following former Senator Rob Portman’s advocacy for a congressional fiscal commission to address unsustainable spending that’s driving the US deeper into a debt crisis. From speaking out on behalf of a commission approach at a recent House Budget Committee hearing to advocating for it in writing as part of a series of essays by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Portman is a leading voice on the issue.

Which is why it’s so important that the senator gets his facts straight.

In his testimony and published essay, Portman claims:

“After Base Closure Commission recommendations were made, Congress took up or down on the whole package of bases with no ability to amend them [sic].”

The Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, commission did not force Congress to take an affirmative up or down vote before its recommendations would go into effect. Instead, BRAC used a mechanism that might best be described as allowing for congressional silent approval.

There is a key difference between members of Congress having to go on the record in favor of a commission’s recommendations and simply doing nothing to prevent the recommendations from taking effect. Forcing members of Congress to take an affirmative vote of approval before fiscal commission recommendations can go into effect poses a far larger barrier than allowing politicians to stand by as proposals get implemented in the absence of an affirmative act of disapproval.

BRAC capitalized on the power of default settings. As the Congressional Research Service described the process:

“The BRAC statute provided for expedited congressional procedures to disapprove commission recommendations regarding base realignments and closures, with a straight up or down vote and no possibility for amending the list. Upon receiving the commission’s recommendations from the President, Congress would need to pass a joint resolution of disapproval of the recommendations within 45 days, or else the commission’s recommendations would go into effect.”

Here’s how BRAC worked in a bit more detail:

The BRAC Commission submits a list of recommended base closures and realignments to the president.
The president reviews the recommendations and decides whether to approve or disapprove the list in its entirety. The president cannot make changes to the list.
If the president approves the BRAC Commission’s list, it is then sent to Congress for a 45‐​day review period.
During this review period, Congress has the option to pass a joint resolution disapproving the BRAC recommendations. If both the House and Senate pass the resolution and it is signed by the president, the BRAC list would be rejected, and the closures and realignments would not take place.
If Congress does not pass a joint resolution disapproving the BRAC list within the 45‐​day review period, the recommendations go into effect, and the implementation process begins.

I agree with former Senator Portman that we’ll need to empower a fiscal commission to address the seemingly insurmountable and politically intractable problem of reforming major old‐​age benefit programs. Medicare and Social Security are jointly responsible for 95 percent of all US government long‐​term unfunded obligations. There is no solution to the US debt crisis that avoids entitlement reform.

US entitlement programs operate on default settings that allow for spending to grow on autopilot, based on eligibility criteria that were established decades ago, and irrespective of the availability of the necessary resources to fund them. Today’s politicians do not have to lift another finger to increase government spending. Spending grows automatically under current law.

Default settings are powerful mechanisms, harnessed in a variety of contexts from automatic retirement savings to subscription‐​based services. Now, US entitlement program default settings are working to the detriment of American workers and taxpayers as rising spending gobbles up more and more economic resources. This happened because demographic changes, from an aging population to declining fertility, have turned the entitlement funding pyramid upside down, with fewer workers at the bottom of the pyramid funding a growing share of retirees at the receiving top end.

It’s about time that members of Congress leveraged the power of default settings in American taxpayers’ favor. Designing a fiscal commission after the successful BRAC model, by allowing Congress to avoid a politically suicidal vote to fix the growing debt crisis, is the most promising approach for establishing a commission that will succeed.

So, let’s establish a BRAC‐​like fiscal commission, and let’s also be sure to set it up in accordance with how BRAC actually worked.

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