Secrecy fears over debt super committee

@CNNMoney August 17, 2011: 1:42 PM ET
Secrecy fears over debt super committee

Some lawmakers and outside advocates are pushing for openness from committee charged with proposing debt reduction.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Will it be the super committee, or the super-secret committee?

The 12-person deficit reduction committee hasn't even started work yet and it's already getting an earful from other lawmakers and outside advocates worried the process will play out behind closed doors.

Tasked with slashing another $1.5 trillion in debt over the next 10 years, the committee was created with no built-in provisions for public meetings, hearings or lobbying disclosures.

The stakes are enormous. The committee is likely to consider more cuts to discretionary spending, as well as limitations to defense spending and health care costs. The tax code and entitlement programs will come under scrutiny.

If the committee process fails to produce a debt reduction plan, as much as $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts would kick in -- evenly divided between defense and non-defense spending.

"To not have the public involved in decisions of this magnitude would be a disgrace," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a group that promotes open government.

If the recent past is any indication, full transparency might not be in the cards.

Super committee: Who are these guys?

Vice President Joe Biden held debt talks earlier this year. They were not open to the public or press. President Obama tried to negotiate a deal with House Speaker John Boehner. There was no public access. The final debt ceiling talks between congressional leaders? Yeah, ditto.

"Most of the deficit reduction negotiations this year have taken place behind closed doors and none of it has gone beyond Washington horse-trading to engage the public in any meaningful way," Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a deficit watchdog group, wrote in a blog post.

Advocates for a closed process contend that a public discussion of sensitive issues makes it much easier for a deal to collapse as special interest groups are allowed to mobilize against the proposal.

"That has not proved successful. That approach has been tried and it failed," Bixby said. "If you are in on the landing, you have to be in on the takeoff."

Part of the consternation among transparency advocates stems from the unique rules set up for the committee. Once seven members of the committee agree on a plan, the bill will be rushed through the House and Senate under a special procedure.

No amendments will be considered. It's take it -- or leave it.

Oh, and think of the behind-the-scenes lobbying! Instead of seeking to influence 535 members of Congress, Washington's well practiced lobbying machine will be able to focus on only 12 members.

"We expect a feeding frenzy," Wonderlich said. "To try and get in and meet with those 12 people will be near impossible for the next few months."

One anonymous Democratic lobbyist already told Politico that he was "preparing by writing 12 really large checks."

There is still a chance the process -- or at least part of it -- will take place in public. The decision will largely be left up to the co-chairs of the committee: Republican Jeb Hensarling from the House and Democrat Patty Murray from the Senate.

Their offices did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

The group will have its first meeting in the next few weeks, and decisions on public access will have to be made by then.

Already, some other members of Congress are advocating for an open process.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said earlier this month in a statement that the committee's deliberations "should be open to the press, to the public and webcast."

She cautioned that "any acceptance" of the deal "will be dependent on the ability of the American people to fully view its proceedings."

In the Senate, six Republicans penned a letter to the body's leadership asking for proceedings to be televised, saying "the American people have a right to know what their government is going to do with their tax dollars."

Sunlight -- an authority on government transparency -- has a list of recommendations: All meetings should be webcast; the text of the legislation should be available online for 72 hours before a vote; contacts with and donations from lobbyists should be disclosed on a daily basis; and lawmakers and their staffs should post personal disclosure forms.

"The secrecy around the debt ceiling is unacceptable," Wonderlich said. "If we don't have more public involvement, the legitimacy of those decisions are in doubt." To top of page

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