Can we please call a halt to Washington’s obsession with creating commissions to address any and every issue of substance and controversy? Didn’t the outcome of the Simpson-Bowles Commission teach us anything? The more serious the subject and the more substantive the recommendations, the less likely it is that the commission’s results will be translated into policy or law. Commissions have morphed from a means of focusing the intellectual power of a group of senior individuals to solve particularly challenging government problems into a way the political system can avoid making hard decisions. Even worse, with increasing frequency, commissions are being employed as a method for delaying or even blocking substantive change.
Between1988 and 2005 the Department of Defense ran five Base Realignment and Closure Commissions (BRAC) to get rid of excess infrastructure. The first several commissions were quite successful. The threat of being “BRAC-ed” also incentivized government facilities to become more efficient. But as the low hanging fruit was picked and decisions became more difficult, the later Commissions were less successful. As a result of the failure of the 2005 BRAC round, the military is saddled today with approximately 20 percent more infrastructure than it can use, and this is before planned force structure cuts.
The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, which recently reported its findings, was the result of a spat between that service and the Air National Guard over the movement of less than 200 airplanes and the elimination of a couple of thousand positions. The Guard went to Congress and had the Air Force’s plan stopped in its tracks. The compromise solution was a commission. The total savings to be achieved, were all the Commission’s recommendations accepted, is $2 billion with 36,000 positions shifted from the Air Force to the Guard (a little more than 10 percent of total strength). The real outcome of this commission was to teach the Air Force that the true power in Washington resides with the Guard.
The latest example of dysfunction by commission is the proposed legislation that would create a National Commission on the Structure of the Army. The new law also would prevent the Army from transferring helicopters between the Active Component and the National Guard or from reducing the Guard’s end strength. Are we becoming the European Union with its Commission that writes rules on the proper pedigree of Swiss cheese? This proposal is clearly an effort by a special interest and its supporters in Congress to do an end-run around the Army’s appropriate and lawful decision making responsibilities.
In a letter to Congress, former Army Chief of Staff and president of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), General Gordon Sullivan, has characterized the proposed commission as unnecessary and even an impediment to the service’s ability to rationally draw down. More to the point, as General Sullivan correctly points out, a commission would undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the Army’s leadership. Mind you, the current fight between the Army, which is slated to lose some 80,000 soldiers, and the National Guard and Reserve is over proposed cuts of 50,000 total to the latter two organizations. The proposal to create a National Commission on the Structure of the Army before reorganization plans are even finalized is the equivalent of holding a loaded gun to the head of that service’s chief of staff.
Making momentous force structure and budget decisions by commission is a bad way of managing the nation’s military. It undermines the authority of the executive branch and allows the legislative branch to hide behind the words and deeds of others, avoiding the need to make hard decisions. We need a moratorium on commissions involving the Department of Defense.
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