Government Commissions Find Defenders Amid Pay-Raise Fallout

WHEN the dust from the congressional pay raise fiasco began to settle, much of it initially fell on the concept of high-level commissions. That's because the recommendation for the pay raise for Congress, federal judges, and top executive branch officials came from a commission.

But experts warn that reports of the demise of commissions are, like those of Mark Twain's death, greatly exaggerated. They point out that there are two distinct types of commissions: Those that generate new information on which to base public policy, and those that attempt to shield Congress or the administration from having to take a leadership role on politically sensitive issues.

The pay-raise fallout has threatened only the second type, ``the kind that is designed to provide political cover, and to let Congress duck'' hard issues, says John Rother, legislative director of the American Association of Retired Persons. One example: pay raise. Another: closing military bases.

In the future Congress may think twice before establishing another body of this type. ``The commission's probably outlived its usefulness on the pay-raise front,'' says Thomas E. Mann, a Brookings Institution political scientist.

But that other type of commission - the kind just supposed to come up with ideas - ``that's a different ball game,'' says Nolan Clark, a Washington lawyer who has written a chapter on commissions in a book on Congress to be released next week. ``These will continue to be used,'' Mr. Clark says flatly.

MR. Rother agrees, and gives an example. The Greenspan commission, he says, is widely considered a model of success. It's the one that in 1983 recommended what steps Congress might take to prevent the social security system from falling into bankruptcy.

Another frequently lauded commission: last year's presidential AIDS commission. Chaired by Adm. James Watkins, since named by President Bush as his secretary of energy, the panel ``produced something which added to what we know,'' Rother says.

He adds that most commissions ``are a mixture of the two'' elements, providing some information and some political cover.

``Commissions are useful in certain circumstances,'' House majority leader Thomas Foley (D) of Washington says, ``particularly when there is a strong consensus'' on a desire to solve a problem. He, too, cites the social security commission as an example that worked.

But commissions ``are no panacea,'' Mann warns. ``They can't create consensus out of conflict.'' Consensus, experts say, is one of two elements necessary for a commission to succeed. The other, he adds, is a sense of urgency that action is required.

Some criticize what Clark calls ``one-shot commissions,'' like the pay-raise panel, on constitutional grounds.

``They are part of the legislative process,...'' he says, ``in the sense that their product becomes law'' unless Congress specifically votes no. Clark calls it ``an interesting question as to whether it's consistent with the constitutional structure'' of American government.

``The other question,'' Clark adds, ``is a public policy question: What is the right way to resolve these kinds of questions?... I'm inclined to think that Congress ought to be forced to make the hard decisions.''

When it comes to a pay raise, he need not worry, at least in the near term.

Foley quietly notes, ``It's unlikely [that] the idea of a pay commission will survive.''

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