Imagine a smoothly functioning government where politicians put aside ambition to serve the national interest and political parties put aside philosophical differences to reach common ground on the non-ideological aspects of governing. This description obviously bears little resemblance to the current state of affairs in Washington, D.C., but instances of this technocratic utopia can be found throughout modern history in the form of the bipartisan commission.
Although ineffective in areas where Democrats and Republicans have substantive philosophical disagreement, as evidenced by the abject failure of Simpson-Bowles to bridge the partisan divide on deficit reduction, bipartisan commissions have an excellent track record of addressing public policy issues where the major challenges stem from technical problems or petty political concerns. For example, the Greenspan Commission in the 1980's modernized the Social Security system to account for changes in the income and life expectancy of the average American. In the 1990's, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission began the process of closing and consolidating military bases, a process which had previously always stalled as each individual legislator sought to protect bases in their district even as they recognized the need to make reductions overall.
The debt ceiling, the bizarre procedural technicality which requires Congress to vote separately on paying for spending they have already voted for, is an issue tailor-made for a bipartisan commission to solve. Here are two Republicans and two Democrats who could easily serve on the Debt Ceiling Reform Commission:
1. Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana
The poster child for conservative technocrats, Mitch Daniels solved problems far more difficult during his wildly successful two terms as the governor of Indiana. He privatized major parts of the state highway system without the scandals and abuses which often accompany privatization, expanded health insurance coverage to hundreds of thousands of previously uninsured Indiana residents at a reasonable cost to taxpayers, and balanced the state budget with a balanced approach rather than the knee-jerk spending cuts or tax hikes favored by intemperate politicians. After those, and countless other successful reforms, fixing the debt ceiling should be a cinch.
2. Larry Summers, former secretary of the treasury
The Treasury Secretary for Bill Clinton and recipient of a John Banes Clark Medal, Summers is one of the few top-flight economists who is also a skilled Washington operator and would be sure to keep the committee informed on the macroeconomic ramifications of their debt ceiling fix.
3. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts
The defeated presidential candidate is unlikely to accept any employment offers from Barack Obama, but since this is a wish list, the former Bain Capital CEO and Massachusetts governor makes an excellent candidate. Prior to running for the presidency and contorting himself into agreement with every right-wing shibboleth, Romney was known for technocratic problem solving, either with failed companies or the disastrous “Big Dig” construction project in Massachusetts. So long as he brought the same data-driven mindset to the commission that he did to constructing health care reform in Massachusetts, he’d be an excellent addition.
4. Joe Biden, vice president
While the vice president is better known for his everyman demeanor and cringe-worthy gaffes than his policy wonk bona fides, he would bring over 30 years of Senate experience to the commission. Biden ranks among the best Washington deal makers even in the polarized current government; he negotiated the fiscal cliff compromise with Mitch McConnell and then sold it to reluctant Democrats. In the 1990's, he succeeded in a seemingly-Sisyphean bipartisan task, cooperating with the ornery ultraconservative Jesse Helms on the Foreign Affairs Committee. If Biden could get Helms to compromise, selling a debt ceiling fix would be easy
These four people could easily lead the effort to fix the debt ceiling and lift the Sword of Damocles that is the threat of default due to congressional dysfunction. Naturally, this won’t happen. Given the political stakes involved, neither party wants to solve the debt ceiling anytime soon – Republican hardliners like the idea of a hard cap on public debt, even if the cap needlessly overlaps with the standard appropriations process, and Democrats enjoy the political advantages of the having the Republican’s boxed into a position on the debt ceiling that runs contrary to public opinion.
In a better government however, the kind of American only found in high school civics classes and Aaron Sorkin’s television shows, this commission would be enacted after a heartwarming, if a bit tedious, monologue from a White House staffer. Where’s Jeb Bartlett (or Glen Allen Walken) when you need him?