On Wednesday, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., proposed abolishing the Joint Economic Committee of Congress in order to save $3.9 million. As chairman of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, his proposals in this area obviously carry a lot of weight. While I think the JEC deserves to stay in business, it might be a good idea for the committee to use this threat to its existence as an opportunity rethink its operations.
I am not a disinterested observer. I was on the JEC staff for four years in the early 1980s and was executive director (chief of staff) for the last two. In those days, I think the committee did much important work that stands up well 20 years later.
One reason the JEC functioned so well at that time is that there was a serious effort to abolish it in the late 1970s. The JEC had been established in 1946 as the congressional counterpart to the president's Council of Economic Advisers. But unlike the CEA, which has three professional economists as members, the JEC is comprised of 10 congressmen and 10 senators, who are further divided between Republicans and Democrats.
The more overtly political nature of the JEC has always made it impossible for the committee to function the same way the CEA does. Nevertheless, in the 1950s and 1960s it played an important role in transmitting academic economic thinking to Congress. In part, that is because one of its chairmen was Sen. Paul Douglas, D-Ill., who had been a famous economist at the University of Chicago. Every economics textbook still carries a discussion of the Cobb-Douglas production function that he developed.
The JEC is probably best known for being a major supporter of Keynesian economics and helping to lay the intellectual foundation for the Kennedy tax cut of 1964. Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., who managed the tax bill in the House, was a member of the JEC and used its staff, especially economist Norman Ture, to get it passed.
As a hotbed of Keynesian economics, the decline of this school of thought hit the JEC hard. According to Keynesian doctrine, inflation and unemployment can't go up at the same time. So when this happened in the 1970s, the Keynesians faced a dilemma that they were never able to resolve. That is one reason why the JEC was viewed as being expendable. Also, the Congressional Budget Office, created in 1974, took away much of its work in the area of economic forecasting.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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