Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Crises, Commissions, and Reform: The Impact of Blue-Ribbon Panels

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Crises, Commissions, and Reform: The Impact of Blue-Ribbon Panels

Article excerpt


Blue-ribbon commissions are often derided as institutions that only help the president or Congress deflect political pressure. Commissions, according to this conventional wisdom, may take some heat off elected officials, but they do not lead to reform. As a recent Washington Post article began, "After most bipartisan commissions in Washington make recommendations on a pressing issue of the day, presidents and lawmakers have a long-standing tendency to ignore them" (O'Keefe 2012).

Yet some blue-ribbon panels have been credited with catalyzing major changes. For instance, journalists have observed that the 9/11 Commission sparked a landmark intelligence reorganization, the 1986 Rogers Commission prompted an overhaul of the space shuttle program, and the 1981-1983 Greenspan Commission shaped major Social Security reform (Kaplan and Whitelaw 2004; Sawyer 1988; Tolchin 1983).

This contrast between the conventional wisdom and the large impact of some commissions raises several questions: To what extent, in what circumstances, and how do commissions influence policy making?

I define a blue-ribbon commission as a government- authorized temporary panel that lacks formal policymak- ing power and includes at least one member from outside government. The existing literature on such commissions has focused on evaluating why policy makers form com- missions and whether commission proposals lead to significant changes. On the former issue, scholars have identified numerous motivations for creating commissions, including to seek expertise, advance an agenda, overcome gridlock, gain political cover, conduct damage control, reassure the public, and ward off pres- sure for change (Campbell 2002; Filtner 1986; Johnson 2011; Kitts 2006; Wolanin 1975; Zegart 2004).

Regarding commission impact, the scholarly evidence is mixed, but indicates that commissions sometimes have substantial influence. Nearly four decades ago, Thomas Wolanin determined that half of commissions have an important proposal adopted by the president or Congress (Wolanin 1975). More recently, James Pfiffner found that most commissions have served a useful public purpose and that many have influenced policy (Pfiffner 2009). There has also been a flurry of recent scholarship on com- missions that examined intelligence and other national security issues. In this research, Glenn Hastedt found that intelligence commissions have had varied impact, but have tended to narrow the range of choices considered by policy makers; Loch Johnson determined that a 1996 commission helped to bolster the intelligence communi- ty's reputation, while influencing some elements of intel- ligence policy; Michael Warner and Kenneth McDonald found that several commissions led to important intelli- gence reforms; and Amy Zegart determined that few intelligence commission proposals were implemented during the decade prior to September 11, 2001 (Hastedt 2007; Johnson 2011; Warner and McDonald 2005; Zegart 2007). Regarding national security more broadly, Kenneth Kitts found that commissions have protected the presi- dent's control over policy making, and I determined that commissions have catalyzed significant reforms after ter- rorist attacks (Kitts 2006; Tama 2011a).

In my previously published work, I also examined the factors that facilitate commission influence on policy mak- ing, finding that commissions have greater impact when they operate in the context of a crisis, are established by the executive branch (rather than Congress), and are given a relatively narrow mandate (Tama 2011a). In this article, I build on those findings and extend the literature by assess- ing the impact of commissions on public policy and public debate, and by evaluating whether commissions are more likely to spur certain types of reforms than others.

After explaining how commissions tend to derive clout from their bipartisan credibility, I formulate and test an original explanation of why the impact of commissions often lies in the area of government reorganization, rather than substantive policy change. …

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