StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

What's The Difference Between BRAC And A Budget Commission?

20 Nov 2009
Posted by Stan Collender

Long time CG&G (and Vox Baby before that) reader "Brooks" commented this morning on CG&G's continuing discussion about the value of a budget commission.  Bruce, Pete, and I all agree that it won't accomplish much.  Brooks disagrees and in his comment links to an op-ed on by Indiana Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) in which he discusses his commission plan.

Here's the money quote from the Bayh op-ed:

...our bipartisan panel would put all options on the table, including spending cuts and revenue raisers. Congress would then be compelled by law to debate the recommendations and take an up-or-down vote on the entire plan.

The plan Bayh is describing is very similar to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) process that many people use as an example of how and why a budget commission could work magic when it comes to reducing the deficit.

There's only one problem with this comparision: the two situations aren't at all comparable.

The BRAC works because it is implementing a decision that has already been made, that is, a consesus exists and an agreement is in place that some military installations should be closed.  The only thing the BRAC is doing is making a recommendation about which facilities should be included.

A budget commission, on the other hand, would be charged with the fiscal equivalent of  having to decide whether any facilities needed to be closed at all, whether there are other ways military spending could be limited, and even whether the Pentagon needed to be cut back at all.  Those are far different and politically much more difficult questions.  My guess: if BRAC had to deal with this it would never accomplish anything and wouldn't be the model many people think it to be.

A budget commission that only had to make a BRAC-like decision would have a much higher likelihood of being successful.  But...and it's a HUGE but...this would require that the budget commission be established only after a consensus and decision had been reached not just to reduce the deficit but that the deficit be reduced only be cutting spending, only by increasing revenues, or some other such choice.  The budget commission would then be charged -- BRAC-like -- with implementing the consensus and determining which programs should be reduced, which taxes shoudl be raised, etc.

Sorry Brooks.  We really and truly appreciate your continued visits to CG&G, but this just doesn't work.  Thanks for the inspiration for this post, however.

Wait.  There's More.  Matthew Yglesias, whop agrees with me that pizza is a basic food group, also agrees that a budget commission like the one suggested by Bayh has little chance of succeeding.



Stan, With all due respect,


With all due respect, your argument is specious. First, just as the BRAC Commission followed consensus that some military bases should be closed even though (I assume) there was no prior consensus on what portion of closures should be Army bases vs. Air Force bases (or other branches), so there would be consensus that projected long-term deficits must be reduced by reducing projected spending and/or increasing projected revenues. Second, establishment of a SAFE Commission would represent at least implicit acknowledgment that it will be "and" not "or", even if some/most don't concede as much at the onset (their inability to concede as much is the primary reason why the political cover of a SAFE Commission is needed. As commission co-sponsor Kent Conrad says “The only way you do this is if everyone joins hands and jumps off the cliff together” ).

I'll probably have a much longer post over the weekend or Monday, making the case for the SAFE Commission more completely than I have thus far.

By the way, does Andrew have an opinion on this matter?

As a note, my parallel with

As a note, my parallel with lack of consensus on what portion of closures should be Army bases vs. Air Force bases (or other branches) applies also to the lack of consensus on the contentious issue of which bases in what regions/states/Congressional districts would closed (which was probably the main source of disagreement). My point is simply that there was consensus on the overall objective (substantial base closures) but no consensus on which sacrifices should be made to achieve that overall objective, just as establishment of a SAFE Commission would reflect and represent consensus on the overall objective of reduction in projected deficits but no consensus on which sacrifices should be made (degree of tax side vs. revenue side, as well as the particulars within each side). And the rationale and need for such a commission is largely because of this lack of consensus on the "how" of achieving the overall goal on which there is consensus.

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