Presidential Advisory Commissions

January 6, 1984

Report Outline
Proliferation on Panels
Debate About Their Value
The Reagan Commissions
Special Focus

Proliferation on Panels

Kissinger, Hunger: Latest in Long Line

Two advisory commissions make long-awaited reports to President Reagan this month, probably within a few days of each other. First come the Kissinger Commission's findings and recommendations on U.S. relations with Central America, followed by the report of the Task Force on Food Assistance, studying the problem of hunger in America. These commissions are typical of the dozens of “blue-ribbon” panels appointed by presidents over the years to examine contemporary issues. Some historians trace the use of commissions to George Washington's presidency. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to use them extensively, and their prevalence and importance have grown along with the burgeoning federal government of the 20th century. The names of several commissions are familiar to most Americans; the Warren Commission on the assassination of President Kennedy and the Kerner Commission on urban unrest are examples.

Yet the usefulness of these advisory bodies is a subject of debate. Many political scientists, journalists and other citizens have a negative view of presidential commissions. They see the commission process as a way for presidents to duck or postpone action on hot issues until the public loses interest. They complain that commissions are often “packed” with supporters of the incumbent's policies. And they note that most commissions that reject those positions are either ignored or attacked by the president who appointed them.

Defenders of commissions say they enable presidents to remove issues from the heat of political debate and turn them over for dispassionate analysis by prestigious panels of experts. Commissions, this argument continues, also provide a forum for citizen participation in government and often play an educative role by placing the imprimatur of establishment approval on positions not currently popular. Commissions are credited with providing an image of presidential action and concern in crisis situations, such as during the urban and campus riots of the 1960s when no solutions were readily available. Thomas Wolanin, author of a much-quoted book on presidential advisory commissions, said in a recent interview, “My conclusion … was that these weren't any kind of panacea as government institutions but if done right, they could make a constructive contribution to policy-making and help nudge along some consensus-building…. I don't believe they are a fraud and a sham, just a way to avoid issues.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Executive Powers and the Presidency
Feb. 24, 2006  Presidential Power
Nov. 15, 2002  Presidential Power
Feb. 02, 2001  The Bush Presidency
Jun. 20, 1997  Line-Item Veto
Jun. 14, 1996  First Ladies
Oct. 21, 1988  Dangers in Presidential Transitions
Jun. 10, 1988  The Quandary of Being Vice President
Jan. 06, 1984  Presidential Advisory Commissions
Jul. 28, 1978  Presidential Popularity
Feb. 13, 1976  Evaluating Presidential Performance
Dec. 12, 1975  Presidential Protection
Jul. 11, 1973  Presidential Reorganization
Mar. 07, 1973  Presidential Accountability
Sep. 24, 1971  Presidential Diplomacy
Nov. 11, 1970  Vice Presidency
Oct. 02, 1968  Presidential Power
Mar. 14, 1966  War Powers of the President
Nov. 23, 1960  Transfer of Executive Power
Apr. 04, 1956  Vice Presidency
Oct. 15, 1952  Change of Presidents
Jun. 09, 1950  President and Mid-Term Elections
Oct. 20, 1948  Federal Patronage
Mar. 24, 1948  The South and the Presidency
Dec. 05, 1947  Military Leaders and the Presidency
Apr. 16, 1947  Veto Power of the President
Sep. 20, 1945  Succession to the Presidency
Sep. 12, 1940  The War Powers of the President
Feb. 11, 1938  Emergency Powers of the President
Jan. 06, 1938  The Power to Declare War
Dec. 28, 1937  Extension of the Veto Power
Dec. 28, 1936  Limitation of the President's Tenure
Mar. 12, 1935  The President and the Congress
Dec. 16, 1932  The Veto Power of the President
May 28, 1931  Presidential Commissions
Oct. 23, 1928  Presidential Appointments and the Senate
Mar. 21, 1928  Business Conditions in Presidential Years
Jan. 20, 1927  The Monroe Doctrine
Mar. 18, 1925  The President's Power of Appointment
Sep. 10, 1923  The President's Position on Patronage
Powers and History of the Presidency