Steve Chapman

In the polarized atmosphere of Washington, there is one thing that both parties can usually agree on: convening independent, bipartisan panels of respected experts to devise solutions to tough problems. Actually, there's one more thing they can usually agree on: ignoring what those groups recommend.

Blue-ribbon panels were much in the news this past week. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration came out with a report making the case for expanding early voting options, allowing online voter registration and eliminating long lines at the polls. The little-known Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board issued an analysis concluding that the National Security Agency's domestic phone records surveillance program is illegal and ineffectual.

Know what else is ineffectual? Recommendations from groups like these.

Perhaps the most famous is the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, known as Simpson-Bowles. It is habitually celebrated by Republicans and Democrats, who have somehow managed to avoid enacting most of the measures it proposed.

Likewise, the 2006 Iraq Study Group got positive reviews when it called for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. But in the nation's capital, positive reviews pack all the firepower of a T-shirt cannon. President George W. Bush did pretty much the opposite of what the study group proposed.

The lesson of these boards is that if they endorse what the crucial players in Washington already want to do, their proposals will come into being, and if not, they won't. But we could cut out the middleman and ask Congress and let our leaders adopt their preferred policy without waiting for recommendations they could predict in advance.

The privacy board was particularly superfluous, because it was re-plowing ground freshly tilled by President Barack Obama's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. That group also urged major changes in the NSA programs. Obama responded by accepting a few of the ideas, rejecting others and generally doing his best to please everyone.

Even his acceptances were hedged. One key proposal was to require NSA to get judicial approval to gain access to the database. But the president made only a vague commitment to allow records "to be queried only after a judicial finding or in the case of a true emergency." And the White House press office assures me this commitment applies only during a 60-day "transition period," with no promise it will be permanent.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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