Saturday, April 02, 2005

Base Closure: A Model for Entitlement Reform?

President Bush has pre-empted a stalling tactic by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) by appointing a nine-member base closure commission while the Senate is in recess. The BRAC process (for Base Realignment and Closure) is aimed at taking local politics out of base closure decisions. BRAC was used in 1988, 1991, 1993, and 1995. Here's how it works (adapted from Kenneth R. Mayer's article, "The Limits of Delegation: The Rise and Fall of BRAC," Regulation, Fall 1999):
  • An independent Base Closure and Realignment Commission surveys existing bases, working from a list of closures recommended by the Department of Defense, and identifies the facilities that could be closed or moved without reducing the combat readiness of the armed forces.
  • The commission then forwards a list of recommendations to the president, who can approve or disapprove the list, as a package.
  • If the president approves the list, it goes to Congress.
  • Unless Congress passes a joint resolution of disapproval within 45 days, the Secretary of Defense has the authority to carry out the closures.
The process, in other words, requires the president and Congress to take a package deal, rather than tweak it to serve particular interests -- local constituencies, in the case of base closings. (As Meyer explains, President Clinton, unlike Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, did inject local politics into the 1995 BRAC process. No surprise there.)

It is tempting to consider the use of similarly empowered independent commissions to find solutions to other politically explosive issues -- Social Security and Medicare, for instance. But Mayer throws cold water on that notion:
The use of an independent commission may mask, but cannot eliminate, the fundamental tension between the interests of local constituencies [or interest groups: ED] and the broader “public benefit.” The resort to an independent commission is an attempt to take the politics out of politics and substitute a superficially rational process for a purely parochial one. Such an effort is not always effective — as we have seen even in the case of BRAC — nor is it always desirable.

Critics argue that an independent commission is simply political cover for legislators who are too timid to make their own choices. By delegating controversial decisions to a nonelected board or agency, legislators hope to evade both responsibility and accountability.

The limited success of independent commissions [which Mayer details: ED] stems from the basic parameters of congressional delegation. Delegation does not work unless legislators cede their power to make after-the-fact decisions. But the broader or more controversial the policy, the less likely it is that legislators will agree to cede that power. And rightly so.
Mayer may be right, but at this point I'd gladly see Congress appoint a Social Security-Medicare commission modeled on BRAC. Would it be a constitutional delegation of congressional power? Well, if BRAC is constitutional (and it seems to be), almost any kind of delegation is constitutional. (For the constitutionally fastidious among you, I offer two scholarly takes on the constitutionality of delegation.)