Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) appointed three Democrats to a 12-member deficit Super Committee Tuesday, giving observers and advocates an early indication of how the committee will function as it seeks over a trillion dollars in further deficit cuts by the end of the year.
Just as important as who serves on the panel, though, is the question of whether it will function like most Congressional committees do — open to press and voters, with conflicts of interest disclosed publicly, if not always swiftly or conveniently.
So often, high-stakes negotiations like these are conducted in private, where members feel free from accountability, and, to a lesser extent, from special interest influence. And because the debt ceiling statute that created the panel included no significant transparency requirements, the expectation has been that it will operate away from public scrutiny.
But there is growing pressure on Congressional leaders to pull back the curtain on the panel, including from influential members of their own parties. And now it seems as likely as not that the proceedings will take place in a way that makes it difficult for members to hide deal-making from the public.
“[F]rom the conversations I’ve had with the other leaders of both parties, I can tell you there’s a strong commitment to having open hearings and a public process,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told his members on a Monday conference call, according to his spokesman.
That will come as a big relief to members of both parties — including conservatives in the GOP who haven’t always been on the same page as their leaders.
“Transparency is paramount — you should operate in the full light of day as other committees do,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) told me in an interview Tuesday. “With such a small group, with such power transparency is imperative. The last thing you want to hear about is some closed door meeting where something’s getting done that nobody knows about. It’s the peoples business and should be done in the light of day.”
Private or public, Chaffetz warned, “these people are gonna get bombarded with ideas and suggestions,” from outside interests — which is why he and others opposed it from the outset. “We already have a bipartisan commission, it’s called the House of Representatives and the United States Senate.”
He has unlikely allies. In fact he has several. Members of Congress as disparate as Chaffetz, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and David Vitter (R-LA) have all demanded the committee operate openly. in recent days, and the Sunlight Foundation — an influential transparency advocate — has helped align these efforts.
“We’ve seen almost no resistance,” said John Wonderlich, Sunlight’s Policy Director told me in an interview Tuesday. “Occasionally someone will try to say secrecy is good or necessary for deliberations.”
Momentum is on their side.
“The work of this Committee will affect all Americans, and its deliberations should be open the press, to the public and webcast,” Pelosi said in a statement Friday. “Any acceptance of the Committee proposal will be dependent on the ability of the American people to fully view its proceedings.”
A spokesmen for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not respond to a requests for comment on the transparency issue Tuesday. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Reid will defer to the Committee leadership regarding its transparency protocols.
In the Senate, a number of Republicans led by Dean Heller (R-NV) are joining the transparency push with legislation that would require the committee’s work to be conducted in public, except when issues are classified for security reasons. Vitter introduced separate legislation to require committee members to disclose any campaign donations they receive while serving of over $1,000.
In the House, Reps. Mike Quigley (D-IL), and Jim Renacci (R-OH) are rounding up signatures on a letter to leaders to push four requirements.
1. All meetings and hearings should be publically noticed in advance, open to the public, broadcast live over the internet, and archived on the Committee’s website.
2. The final legislative language put forward by the Committee should be posted online at least 72 hours prior to the final Committee vote.
3. Campaign contributions received by Committee members should be posted online at least once per week to ensure proper oversight of donations from special interests to Committee members.
4. All meetings between lobbyists and other special interest groups and members of the Committee and their staffs should be posted online at least once per week, as was done with the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Members of Congress often discover (or rediscover) the virtues of transparency when it suits their interests, and now is no different. Democrats would like nothing more than for Republicans to reveal to the public once again their deep seated opposition to popular entitlement programs and taxes on wealthy people.
“I think [Pelosi] believes that Democrats are fighting a good fight and the public is on our side about having revenues on the table and let that case be made publicly,” said one highly placed Democratic source.
And Republicans, who dread running afoul of conservative activists, welcome the opportunity to prove their anti-tax bona fides to the right, and to make good on their pledges to Tea Partiers to conduct legislative business openly.
But if the past year has proven anything it’s that, in Congress, cameras are for posturing, and substance — good or bad — is crafted behind closed doors. It was true of the tax deal last December, the spending deal that averted a government shutdown in April, and the debt limit deal, the details of which were finalized in a series of high stakes private conversations between the White House and Congressional Republicans.
One of those details is particularly relevant now. If the committee fails to reach agreement it will trigger a penalty of $500 billion in defense and security cuts, and hundreds of billions more in domestic spending reductions, including a 2 percent across the board cut to Medicare providers. If at least seven of 12 committee members decide they want to avoid the penalty, they’ll find time to meet and negotiate away from the cameras, and any public hearings will serve as staging ground for deals struck in private.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.