WASHINGTON -- You know the foreboding you feel while watching the steamier Greek tragedies, when dynasties are falling and sons are marrying their mothers and everyone is behaving badly and you are thinking: Really, things cannot continue like this.
Washington feels that way on the rare and fleeting occasions when it really thinks about the nation's looming crisis of public finance. The crisis, which is obvious and inevitable, combines unfulfillable entitlement promises and unsustainable budget deficits. So Washington is succumbing, yet again, to an idee fixe, which is usually, and in this case, scary.
The awful idea is for Congress to divest itself of the core competence that the Constitution vests in it -- the power to make the taxing and spending choices that shape the nation. This power would be given to an 18-member panel assigned to solve the budgetary crisis.
Under legislation drafted by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and endorsed by 33 other senators, the Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action would be composed of 16 members of Congress (four each selected by the House speaker and minority leader, and the Senate majority and minority leaders) plus the Treasury secretary and someone the president selects. The panel would propose spending cuts and tax increases to put the government on a glide path to solvency. The menu of proposals would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote -- no amendments permitted -- in both houses of Congress.
This is patterned on the commissions that were charged with deciding which military bases -- more of 300 of them, it turned out -- would be closed after the Cold War, a problem deemed too threatening to local sensibilities for Congress to cope with it. The Conrad-Gregg task force is the latest iteration of the "let's-all-hold-hands-and-jump-off-the-cliff-together" school of government, with this difference: Closing bases is small beer compared to the task force's sweeping mandate.
There are two objections -- each is sufficient -- to the task force. One is procedural, the other is substantive.