Deficit 'super committee' behind closed doors: Will it be too secretive?

The deficit super committee tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion from the budget over 10 years began its work Thursday. Critics say it needs to be more transparent and members need to stop fundraising.

Mike Theiler/REUTERS
Congressional deficit 'super committee' co-chair Patty Murray (D) of Washington and co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas (left) open the inaugural meeting in Washington Thursday to search for at least $1.2 trillion in new deficit reductions.

With just 100 days to lop at least $1.2 trillion off the federal deficit over the next 10 years, a new joint committee of Congress launched its first meeting today – a nod to the intense scrutiny and calls for transparency that the 12-member panel already faces.

Unlike any other congressional committee, the deficit reduction panel's mandate potentially covers every aspect of federal taxing and spending. That’s why public interest groups – and the protesters evicted from Thursday’s first meeting – are pushing so hard for public access to committee deliberations.

So far, the panel has committed only to Thursday’s public organizing session and a public hearing on Sept. 13 on “the history and drivers of our nation’s debt and its threats.” The co-chairs of the panel, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas both noted in their opening statements that many deliberations will be closed to the press and public.

But public interest groups are pushing back. In August, 24 public interest groups called on the panel members to suspend all campaign fundraising and “provide complete transparency” for the duration of their work on the panel. Their demands include:

  • Live webcasts of all official meetings and hearings.
  • Disclosure of every meeting held with lobbyists.
  • Disclosure of campaign contributions to committee members in real time on campaign websites.
  • Financial disclosure for all committee members and staffers
  • A guarantee that the committee’s report will be posted at least 72 hours before a final committee vote.

“The stakes are too high for such a powerful committee to operate out of the reach of public oversight,” said the Sunlight Foundation, a public interest group that advocates for transparency, in a statement on its website. “We demand to know what goes on behind the scenes: the Super Committee needs to be transparent about its work and about the special interests who will [undoubtedly] try to influence their decisions.”

The committee has acknowledged the need for some level of transparency, given the enormity of its work.

“Americans deserve to have full access to the committee process,” said Senator Murray in her opening statement. “That product and the process will be public, so the American people will know what the committee has put together."

But she also defended the joint panel’s ability, like any other congressional committee, “to meet just among members to discuss important issues.”

The rules package approved unanimously at Thursday’s meeting requires transparency but “does not include less formal caucuses and working meetings,” Murray said during discussion on the joint committee rules.

Some members have already announced plans to scale back on fundraising. “Both Sens. Rob Portman and Max Baucus have canceled fundraising events over the next few months,” said David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign Action Fund in a statement on Sept. 7.

Fundraising takes away from the time members have to build a compromise around a deficit deal, he says.

He called on Senator Kerry to "cancel all fundraising," including his appearance at a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) fundraiser. For Murray, who is chairing the DSCC, such a pledge would conflict with her responsibilities to raise funds for Senate Democrats in what is expected to be a tough campaign cycle.

But Mr. Donnelly is insistent.

“It’s important that each of the members tell their constituents that they are not going to raise money during this period,” he says in an interview. “The public has so little confidence in Congress right now that it’s a small step to assure the public that they are not listening to donors as they do this work.”

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