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It’s Either Chaos or This Plan: Paul Ryan on My BRAC-Like Fiscal Commission Idea

Romina Boccia

Four people at a conference

Few challenges loom as ominously as the exploding national debt. The US government has grown into an ever‐​swelling leviathan that’s increasingly oriented towards doling out cash and health benefits to America’s electorally potent seniors—without consideration of the burden this imposes on younger working Americans. The result: unsustainable spending that demands an innovative solution that works.

Among the more promising ideas to gain traction recently is my proposal for a BRAC‐​like fiscal commission—a mechanism reminiscent of the Base Realignment and Closure process that once effectively restructured US military infrastructure by eliminating obsolete bases and freeing up resources for new growth. An idea that’s both elegant in its simplicity and potent in its potential, a BRAC‐​like fiscal commission may just be the missing piece in bending the spending and debt curve before the US enters into a debt doom loop of rapidly accelerating interest costs and inflation.

I was invited to share my proposal at the Coolidge Conference on Debt, an event steeped in the values of prudence and restraint that defined Calvin Coolidge’s presidential tenure. I was beyond thrilled to join an esteemed panel with two of my heroes, the Hon. Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Steve Forbes, chairman of Forbes Media, moderated by Ambassador Richard Graber, president and CEO of the Bradley Foundation. During Q&A following our panel, a student rose to ask Ryan his thoughts about my BRAC‐​like commission proposal. The student asked:

“What is your opinion on Ms. Boccia’s BRAC plan? I was personally really enamored by it. I was wondering whether you guys can see any issues or potential problems with that kind of commission.”

A student with a microphone

Ryan’s response, delivered with his characteristic blend of erudition and practicality, provides a compelling lens through which to view this proposal. His insights, formed by years at the nexus of policy and politics, illuminate both the promise and the pitfalls of a commission designed to shield legislators from the details of making tough decisions while still ensuring that legislators are ultimately responsible for spending and tax decisions—wielding the power of the purse—as enshrined in the US Constitution.

Paul Ryan responded:

On Romina’s bill, the toughest vote is the initial one. It’s where you, as someone who has counted votes for a long time, identify where the difficult vote lies; it’s at the beginning, with just the creation of this thing. Because if it self‐​executes, it’s more likely than not that it will occur, and you don’t have to delve into the gruesome details. You’re essentially saying, ‘I want to solve the problem and be vague about what the solution is.’

To her credit, that places the tougher but easier vote at the start, and either way, you’re better off if you fast‐​track it. If you require Congress to vote on it, and you can’t dodge it through a filibuster, that’s a process, a step in the right direction. Obviously, you’re already in a better position with the design of that policy.

What gives me pause, and what I’d like to think about more—and I’d be curious to hear what Jeb or Chris, the guys who served with me in Congress, think—is that … I mean, I got BRAC‐​ed. I lost a base in Milwaukee, a fighter wing; you know, and I blamed BRAC, and that’s just how it worked in those days. So, it’s true, that approach works.

But on Medicare and Social Security, it’s pretty inconceivable to me that there wouldn’t be a vote of disapproval; it’s inconceivable that no one in Congress would say, ‘No, we’re not going to allow this.’ So, I think that vote will happen anyway, and it would be to disapprove of it. And I don’t know if it’s that much of a different vote, approval or disapproval. However you vote, it’s going to affect the outcome, and as a politician, you’re going to be blamed for the vote, no matter what.

So, let’s just say, ‘I’m not going to vote to disapprove of this cut to Medicare or Social Security benefits.’ You’re still going to have ads run against you; you’re still going to be blamed. So, I think it’s almost the same thing. What you’re doing is shifting the climax to the end and making it more likely that you’ll reach a resolution. That’s probably what you achieve with that versus other approaches. And the further you progress towards a solution, the better off you are.

So, you’re going to have that non‐​committal vote in both the House and the Senate, no matter what, I think. And the question is, are there events, like Steve and I were just discussing, such that critical members can honestly say, ‘We have a crisis in front of us, and if we don’t solve this problem, the collateral damage—the dollar, your benefits, the benefit cuts—that’s what they have to weigh it against.’ So, that’s the only thing that I think resolves this: a politician can say, ‘It’s either chaos or this plan you don’t like, but that’s better than the chaos. I’m going with this plan.’ That’s essentially how you defend it.

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan’s response to my proposal underscores the likely necessity of a crisis to create the political environment for a BRAC‐​like fiscal commission to proceed. While Ryan acknowledges the strategic merits of fast‐​tracking decisions and circumventing filibusters, the former Speaker of the House also highlights that contentious big issues like Medicare and Social Security reform might still face inevitable votes of disapproval. Politicians must weigh the plan against the potential chaos of inaction, framing it as the preferable option over a debt‐​driven fiscal crisis to secure support. Ultimately, a perceived crisis may be the crucial factor in compelling Congress to embrace any pragmatic approach to fiscal reform.

This raises another question: whether an independent commission process will produce an outcome that respects individual liberty and secures the foundations for economic growth and prosperity better than political decision‐​making during a crisis would. As Cato’s Ryan Bourne has argued:

[P]olicymaking during emergencies can be extremely destructive. If we were to experience an acute fiscal crisis, it seems highly likely that politicians would panic and reach for measures like wealth expropriation to ease the inevitable cocktail of defaults, rapid deficit reduction, and higher inflation. That erosion of property rights would undermine people’s willingness to save and invest in the United States.

I place greater confidence in the commission to safeguard liberty and promote economic prosperity more reliably than the volatile nature of crisis‐​driven decision‐​making by politicians with their pants on fire.

See here for my remarks, explaining the BRAC‐​like fiscal commission and how it would work in greater detail.

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