Can 'super committee' play fair as it tries to control national debt?
The task of reining in the national debt lies in the hands of a super committee of 12, which gets down to business now that Congress is returning from its summer break.
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"This group is very experienced and includes members who have been forced in the past on difficult questions to make compromises," says Steve Bell, senior director of the Economic Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.Skip to next paragraph
Together, these lawmakers have raised more than $592 million since the 1990 campaign cycle, says the Center for Responsive Politics. (About half of that funding is related to Senator Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.) Also, more than 100 former staffers of these 12 lawmakers now work for groups that lobby Congress, according to CRP data.
Contributions directed at members of the panel "come from interests with much at stake during the deficit reduction talks," according to a CRP report released Aug. 17. The median amount raised by the 12 lawmakers from the finance sector is $2.7 million over the past 10 years, or about $8 for every $100 raised.
For some members, that ratio is much higher. For Representative Hensarling, a co-chair of the panel, nearly 40 percent of every $100 raised comes from finance, insurance, or real estate. Senator Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has raised $26.9 million from the finance sector over 10 years, about 20 percent of his campaign contributions.
Another industry with strong contributory ties to the panel is the health sector, which has raised more than $24.6 million for members of the panel over 10 years, or a median of $1.4 million.
The stakes are especially high for the defense industry, which is not well represented on the panel. Of the 12 members, only Senator Murray serves on a defense-related committee. Defense interests have given $2.4 million to the committee members over 10 years, representing a median amount of about $122,600. It's the lowest amount of any interest group tracked by the CRP.
Defense-industry interests are especially concerned about the $600 billion in cuts set to trigger automatically if the panel fails to come to an agreement or if the panel's plan doesn't become law.
"The cuts to Defense proposed in the 'trigger' are so draconian that it's hard to believe they are even on the table," said Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, in a statement.
Public-interest groups are ramping up their own strategies to ensure that the panel's process is open and stands up to scrutiny. Some groups are setting up new Web resources to allow the public to track lobbying and campaign contributions directed at members of the committee. Others are calling for the joint committee's meetings to be televised on C-SPAN or for transcripts to circulate.
The panel's first hearing, on Sept. 13, will be open to the public.
"There has to be a much higher level of transparency given the stakes in this," says Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a public-interest group in Washington that promotes transparency in government. "You've created this situation where you have 12 members of Congress who will be the focal point of an awful lot of attention."
On Aug. 17, the ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent a letter to House and Senate leadership, calling for members of the super committee to "cease all fundraising operations for the duration of their service on the committee."