In 1993, Congress and the White House realized that spending on the big entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, was out of control. So they appointed a blue-ribbon commission to examine the problem. The commission did just that, the members made their feelings known, but no legislative action followed. The next year, Congress and the White House realized that spending on the big entitlement programs was still out of control. So they eventually appointed two more blue-ribbon commissions--one to study each program. The commissions did just that, the members made their feelings known, but, so far, there has been no legislative action.
Blue-ribbon commissions are an old way to make an end run around the partisanship and influence-peddling that often prevent Congress and the White House from taking badly needed legislative action. But, even as the number of commissions multiplies, the commission itself has come to embody the excesses of partisanship. Increasingly, commission members tend to have direct stakes in the subjects being deliberated, but, unlike members of Congress who might be equally biased, they are not accountable to voters.
Perhaps no case is more illustrative of this than the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, founded three years ago to look at the implications of increased gambling in America. In an article in the June 21 Business Week, Lorraine Woellert and Paula Dwyer document how gambling interests co-opted the commission from the outset, first expanding its mission to include the economic virtues of gambling and then gutting its authority.
Among the most effective at this game was casino mogul Steve Wynn, the chairman and CEO of Mirage Resorts Inc. In 1994, when the gaming industry first came under serious attack from politicians, Wynn, a longtime Democrat, began showing Republicans some of his money. Over the next two years, he raised more than $1 million for the GOP. In June 1996, the day after he was feted at a Mirage fund-raiser, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that he would try to strip subpoena power from the embryonic commission.
Wynn's old Democratic allies then tried to bring Wynn back into the fold. Taking time off from his busy reelection campaign, President Clinton played a round of golf with Wynn. Over the course of 18 holes, according to Business Week, Wynn said that he'd begin raising money for Democrats again but griped about Clinton's support for subpoena power for the commission. Soon thereafter, the White House announced that it favored only limited subpoena power. In the end, the commission was given the power to obtain documents but not to compel testimony.
Even if it had the power, it's doubtful that the commission's members would have taken advantage of it. Most of them had formed their opinions long ago. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family and a vehement opponent of gambling, secured a spot on the commission. So did the head of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union, which represents 75,000 casino workers. Both sides quickly became mired in the very politics they were supposed to transcend. Some commissioners began to discount studies, solicited by the commission, that they disagreed with. Indeed, one pro-gambling commission member, J. Terrence Lanni, CEO of MGM Grand Inc., is even threatening to sue the National Opinion Research Center over an anti-gambling study it did for the commission.
When the commission finally issued its 340-page report on June 18--produced at a cost of $5 million--it presented an empty document that, at its best, merely states the obvious: namely, that gambling has grown exponentially in the United States and that the government would do well to take note of this growth.
To be sure, among the commission's nonbinding recommendations are such reasonable proposals as raising the gambling age to 21, introducing a moratorium on new gambling industries, and slowing the growth of state lotteries. These lotteries are truly corrupting government services more than any private casino. Government should not necessarily be in the business of legislating morality; it definitely should not be in the business of legislating immorality. Nor should it be raising money for state services largely on the backs of poor people. Most studies have shown that a state lottery is not only a regressive tax but an inefficient one: only some 34 cents of every dollar that customers spend on lottery tickets actually make their way into a state treasury.
What is sorely needed is legislation that actually addresses such problems--not just in the case of state lotteries but in all gambling. Yet not only did Congress choose to postpone action two years ago by impaneling the gambling commission but the commission itself says that policymakers may still need "future research and assessment." Perhaps even another commission.
This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.