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.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images/File
Pedestrians stopped to view the National Debt Clock in New York on April 19. Accumulated federal deficits – the target of Washington’s current ‘super committee’ – force the government borrowing that has sent national debt above $14.5 trillion.

Congress returns from its summer break to an agenda dominated by jobs – and how to cut at least $1.5 trillion in deficits over the next 10 years.

But unlike the looming debate over how best to create jobs, Congress’s cost-cutting agenda has deadlines and fixed consequences if lawmakers fail to act.

The task to control the national debt lies in the hands of a "super panel" of 12, which is outnumbered by Washington's lobby community by nearly 1,000 to 1.

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, aka super Congress or super committee, is Congress's answer to its own inability to break the hold of partisan gridlock that took America to the brink of default on Aug. 2, prompting the first-ever downgrade of the nation's credit rating.

The panel, which on Thursday holds an organizational meeting open to the public, has a sweeping mandate to propose cuts to spending and entitlements and recommend tax reform by Nov. 23. Congress must vote the package up or down – no amendments or filibuster – by Dec. 23, or trigger a $1.2 trillion package of automatic spending cuts, equally divided between defense and domestic spending.

"Never has Washington had an all-or-nothing panel that is empowered and backed by a firm timeline like this one is," says John Ullyot, a public-affairs consultant in Washington and former GOP Senate staffer. "The starter pistol will fire right after Labor Day."

With everything on the table, Washington's 12,000-member lobby community is gearing up for an all-fronts defense of hard-won tax provisions and spending priorities.

"All loopholes and priorities in this tax code are possible targets. You'll see lobbying across the entire spectrum of items protected in the tax code," Mr. Ullyot says.

The 12 lawmakers tapped by congressional leaders to serve on this panel are: Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas, who are the co-chairs; Sens. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, and Patrick Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania; and Reps. Xavier Becerra (D) of California, Dave Camp (R) of Michigan, James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina, Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, and Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland.

"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.

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."

"Americans need to have confidence that the solutions offered by the super committee represent the best interest of all Americans, not just committee members' biggest donors," said Melanie Sloan, CREW executive director, in a statement.

Meanwhile, the American League of Lobbyists expects to release a report in October on campaign-finance law. "When journalists write about a high-powered influential lobbyist, they aren't necessarily talking about the power of the words coming out of our mouths," says Howard Marlowe, president of the league.

"The league is going to try to do something to encourage members of Congress to search their souls and see if they can't make some changes. There is a responsibility for members of Congress to look at this," he adds.

As for the gridlock that characterized debt talks in July, many Americans hope things will be different this time around. Six in 10 say they want the panel to compromise, even if they don't personally support the outcome, according to a Gallup poll released Aug. 10.

For their part, committee members have steered clear of partisan or ideologically charged statements.

"This is an important moment for our country," said Murray, Baucus, and Kerry in a joint statement on Aug. 8. "Millions of Americans are struggling in this tough economy, working overtime to pay the bills, find a job, and find a way forward for their families, and they want this Committee to force the federal government to make similar sacrifices without the red hot partisanship and brinksmanship of the last months."

House Democrats are urging the panel to make jobs a priority by including a stimulus package, which would focus on infrastructure and would be aimed at resolving the debt crisis by getting Americans back to work and paying taxes. House Republicans, meanwhile, say that the route back to fuller employment is by cutting government regulations.

“We have to see how their first meetings go to see if they will advance a full-fledged, comprehensive economic growth plan, to which deficit reduction is a central component, or just focus on closing the deficit,” says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington.

The choice for staff director of the joint committee – GOP tax expert Mark Prater, who is backed on both sides of the aisle – may signal that the panel is open to significant tax reform. Over 20 years as a Republican aide on the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Prater has worked on issues ranging from expanding access to children’s health care to bipartisan budget deals that included tax increases.

“Mark has a well-earned reputation for being a workhorse who members of both parties have relied on,” said co-chairs Murray and Hensarling in a joint statement on Aug. 30.

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