WASHINGTON — Civics textbooks teach that the US government is divided into three parts - the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. They seldom mention another institution that might be considered a fourth branch. It's called the blue-ribbon commission, and it's much in evidence in Washington now.
Last week a panel appointed by Congress concluded that the consumer price index overstates inflation and should be trimmed back. Another commission is arguing about ways to fix Social Security's finances. There's talk of further bipartisan mega-commissions intended to address overall entitlement program problems.
Critics often charge that politicians use such commissions to avoid dealing with tough issues. But the reality may be that blue-ribbon panels (and they're always "blue-ribbon") are an effective way to coax nervous politicians into decisive action. Over the years they've had a profound effect on everything from Oval Office staffing to US nuclear weapons policy.
"A lot of people who look at commissions cynically miss their long impact on American politics," says Donald F. Kettl, director of the public affairs institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Not that commissions have real power to act on their own. Final action on their reports is always up to Congress, or the White House. The Constitution is silent on the matter of five-member groups of academics directed by former heads of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Nor do they typically produce ideas Washington hasn't already thought of. Consider the case of the CPI commission, which has judged that the current government formula overstates inflation by about 1.1 percentage points a year. Both Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan and the Congressional Budget Office told legislators the same thing months ago. A 1994 entitlement commission suggested trimming the CPI as a means of keeping Social Security cost-of-living increases down and saving billions of dollars.
Commissions do tend to sweep up ideas that already exist and imbue them with more respectability. And even if their suggestions aren't speedily adopted, the fact that a group of eminent citizens is addressing a certain problem can make the country take that problem more seriously.
"Commissions have a way of framing issues that gives them a longer shelf life than they would otherwise have," says Mr. Kettl, who's just been named head of a Wisconsin panel on campaign finance reform.
American use of civilian advisory groups was apparently inspired by the British, whose royal commissions have been dispensing high-minded advice for hundreds of years. The first such US panel was appointed by George Washington in 1794 to investigate the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of Pennsylvania distillers angered by federal liquor taxes.
But commissions didn't become a normal tool in the nation's capital until the early years of the 20th century, when a string of influential panels changed the face of US government. Between 1900 and 1945, commissions led to the formation of the Federal Reserve Board, the centralized federal budget process, and the modern, heavily staffed Office of the President.
Since World War II commissions have become almost ubiquitous.
Among the most famous commissions of recent decades were the Warren Commission, which investigated President Kennedy's assassination, and panels appointed in the '70s in probe inner-city riots and campus unrest. More recently a 1983 National Commission on Social Security Reform led to a congressionally passed package of tax hikes and benefit trims intended to put the program on sound footing for decades.
But Social Security's outlook is now deteriorating again. What do do? Appoint a commission. A federal advisory panel that's been reexamining the problem for more than two years is expected to issue recommendations shortly. They're expected to encompass a range of options - meaning this is one time a panel may not shield Congress from choosing a difficult solution on its own.