President's panels: not just a cool shelf for hot issues
Washington — If an issue is too hot, politicians customarily set it aside on a kind of cooling shelf. They appoint a high-level ''blue ribbon'' commission to study the problem, and the issue seems to disappear for a time.
Take crime commissions. Since 1931, American presidents have been assembling experts to report on lawlessness in the United States, and little has happened except that crime rates keep rising.
But President Reagan, who this week announced formation of a bipartisan commission on Central America, has turned the commission idea on its head. Instead of using these bipartisan groups to delay action, he has made them tools to speed it up.
His social security commission took the most sensitive issue of the year and turned out a compromise that saved the political skins of Republicans, who had been taking a beating on the subject. In the end, the GOP and Reagan had to accept more taxes than they wanted, but they won credit for helping to save the social security system.
No less impressive was the bipartisan Scowcroft Commission, which saved the MX missile by tying it to arms control efforts. So persuasive were its arguments that even some Democrats who led the nuclear freeze effort in the House are helping the President win votes for the MX.
Now comes the Central America commission amid public concern about US involvement in that troubled region. The House on Tuesday stepped up its scrutiny of Reagan policies in a rare secret session to discuss covert aid to rebels in Marxist Nicaragua.
President Reagan ''tends to form commissions when he's on the unpopular side of the issue,'' says Christopher J. Matthews, administrative aide to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts. The key is to establish a group so well respected that it has credibility even among White House critics. ''It's pretty good stuff,'' concedes the aide.
''It seems to be a very good way to control damage,'' he says, because it separates Reagan policies from the man and insulates him from criticism.
A House GOP leadership aide says of the commissions, ''I only have two words to say about them: They work.''
Not everyone is so happy about them, however. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) of Connecticut said this week that ''government by commission is never a good idea.'' Mr. Dodd, a leading opponent of Reagan's Central America policy, complained that the new commission is an attempt to go around Congress since ''the administration has not made any effort to deal with Congress as a whole.''
And the choice of former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger to head the group has touched off outcries from all sides. ''I hope it's only a trial balloon,'' said Rep. Clarence D. Long (D) of Maryland, whose appropriations subcommittee controls the purse strings on aid to El Salvador.
''I believe he has no competence at all in that region,'' Mr. Long said of Dr. Kissinger, adding that the former Nixon appointee was a ''thoroughly disingenuous person'' and that his appointment would not smooth differences between the White House and Congress over Nicaragua.
Members of the extreme right have been even more critical of the choice of Kissinger, whom they blame for what they perceive as US losses to the communists throughout the world.
But the new commission could reassure some critics on Central America policies. Long called it an ''excellent step'' insofar as it shifts the US focus from the military to the economic and political problems of that region.
Reagan has had impressive successes with commissions in the past. House aide Matthews says the technique gives Democrats a chance to ''put restraints on policy'' without being obstructionists. He said it amounts to the White House conceding on principles but still winning its way.
This third commission could turn out to be the most troublesome, based on its controversial start-up. But if the Central America panel does reach out and pull in opponents, it could form the basis of a unified policy on Central America.