My Dream Debt Committee


Now that Congress has agreed to debt-ceiling legislation, it must follow through on the mandate of the bill and pick members for the committee that will determine future spending cuts. The New York Times and Washington Post both continued their coverage of the debt saga by noting that health care and defense lobbyists, two of the most powerful interest groups, are gearing up to not only identify the relevant legislators, but to influence them.

The dynamics of information and influence in this situation mean that we would be much better off as a country if we select the participants for the committee randomly and keep the selections a secret. My dream committee would be a secret and randomized affair.

The reason for the randomization should be clear. People are going to get picked because of how stubborn they are in defending their pet areas of interest, and that will make them blind to what is best to cut. Of course, it would be utopian to call for a random selection because the whole purpose of the automatic cuts is to threaten programs that Democrats and Republicans care about. So, in order to get serious negotiations, you have to send people who really care about the industries that are under threat from the automatic cuts. 

Nonetheless, the result of this hostage taking strategy is an unbalanced way of finding savings. What if cuts, all things considered, should come from defense and provider payments? We have no hope of realizing those cuts with the current selection dynamic.

For example, Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a possible Democrat selection to the committee, is one of my favorite young legislators, but a large portion of his campaign contributions comes from health professionals, who would lose out if provider payments were cut. He will likely be interested in cutting education, or infrastructure, or something that is not health care (and not defense, because Republican members of the committee will defend that interest). In other words, having the automatic cuts target these two areas and then placing champions of these industries on the committee will get an agreement, but it will almost surely come at the cost of some third priority, regardless of how objectively important it is.

If the members of the committee were selected randomly, we would not, at the outset, bias the committee against finding savings in any particular way. A mix of legislators and their interests would have more incentive to think about what programs are objectively wasteful and bad.

The reason for secrecy is to assure that lobbying would not undo the effects of randomization. If you pick a random group of legislators with the hopes that they can judge fairly about cutting health care and defense, then that goal will be undermined if lobbyists can flock to them and threaten/promise to put their money behind the various members.

The one problem with secrecy might be that the randomly selected committee members will be denied information. If lobbyists do not know who the committee members are, they cannot tell them about the effect of cuts to their particular industry. A cynical person will scoff at this point, but it shouldn't be taken lightly. Lobbyists know their industry and know how different bills will affect productivity, jobs, and the population-at-large. They provide information, and if they can't figure out who is on the committee, then the decision-makers will be flying blind.

There is a way to solve this problem though, which is to allow lobbyists to present arguments to the committee blind. Have industry reps come into a conference room and give presentations on why their industry should not be cut, but make it impossible to see the identities of the committee members. That way, industries could not persuade with money (they would not know who to approach), but only by argument (via the people who will hear the pitches).

If we made the committee random and secret, then we would get a group that would, to the greatest extent possible, be influenced only by what would be good for the country. They might pick to raise taxes, or they might decide that only health care cuts are best, or something else — I don't know, but getting the institutional design right gives the best chance of having them respond to important considerations and not irrelevant ones.

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