MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

President Obama's commission on the federal deficit, which is meeting today, has until around this Christmastime to come up with a plan. December is the deadline for its recommendations on reducing red ink. But, there's no guarantee anything will actually come of those recommendations.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this look at what commissions are good for and what they aren't.

ARI SHAPIRO: In the history of federal commissions, task forces and blue ribbon panels, one stands out. Here's a hint: It's the only commission in the history of the government whose final report was both nominated for a National Book Award and mentioned on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"): Of course, here at home there was good news to report in the war on terror as the Senate joined the House in responding to the 9-11 Commission's findings by approving a bill to completely reorganize America's intelligence community. And all it took was three years of constant hounding by grieving widows.

SHAPIRO: The 9-11 Commission is the valedictorian who makes all the other students look inferior. Steven Aftergood directs the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.

Mr. STEVEN AFTERGOOD (Director, Project on Government Secrecy, Federation of American Scientists): Yeah, the 9-11 Commission is unusual in that many of its recommendations were, in fact, adopted. I have shelves here in my office full of commission reports on government secrecy dating back 50 years that produced no policy consequences, whatsoever.

SHAPIRO: Some of those reports deserve to have a wider audience; others, well, not so much.

Professor AMY ZEGART (Public Policy, UCLA): Commissions are really used on every topic imaginable, from Arctic research and things that you've never heard of to major public policy scandals and controversies of the day, like the current oil leak in the Gulf.

SHAPIRO: Amy Zegart of UCLA analyzed every presidential commission spanning 20 years.

Prof. ZEGART: They're almost worthless in terms of policy impact, but they have tremendous political value, which is why presidents and members of Congress keep using them.

SHAPIRO: Presidential candidate Barack Obama described the political value of a commission at a campaign event in 2008. This was just after the economy took a nosedive.

President BARACK OBAMA: Sen. McCain's big solution to the crisis we're facing is - put on your seatbelts - a commission. A commission. You know, that's Washington-speak for "we'll get back to you later."

Prof. ZEGART: There's a reason "I'll get back to you later" is helpful in Washington, because the president always has too much on his plate and not enough time to devote to each issue.

SHAPIRO: And so, now that he's in the White House, President Obama is less dismissive of commissions. He has created several of them. Here's how he described the commission investigating the BP oil spill in a weekly address.

Pres. OBAMA: The purpose of this commission is to consider both the root causes of the disaster and offer options on what safety and environmental precautions we need to take to prevent a similar disaster from happening again.

SHAPIRO: In addition to the commission on BP and the one on the deficit, the White House has created one on America's nuclear future and another to, quote, "study the potential creation of a national museum of the American Latino."

Prof. ZEGART: I would expect, if trends continue, that President Obama will actually rely on commissions even more than his predecessor.

SHAPIRO: UCLA's Amy Zegart, again.

Prof. ZEGART: Because commissions tend to be used more when the existing bureaucracy can't solve a problem. And given the complexities of so many problems we face today - from the economy to counterterrorism - it's more likely that the president and other members of the executive branch will turn these more extra-governmental measures to try to solve these problems.

SHAPIRO: So, six months from now, will the report by the deficit commission or the BP commission shake the world? Or will they disappear in the graveyard of commissions that have come and gone? As candidate Obama said...

Pres. OBAMA: We'll get back to you later.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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