Thursday, March 22, 2012

Deficit "Super Committee" Transparency - Will We Get to See the Budgetary Sausage in Production?

By Stefan C. Passantino and Benjamin P. Keane


Whether you agree with Justice Brandeis that sunlight is the “best of disinfectants” or with former American League of Lobbyists president Dave Wenhold that “too much sunlight causes cancer”, it should be readily apparent to the readers of this blog that public officials of all stripes have increasingly begun to listen to the chorus of voices calling out for more transparency in all levels of government. At PaytoPlayLawBlog, we often write about how the push for greater transparency at the federal, state and local levels is affecting the operation of government, as well as the interaction of the public with government officials. As strictly objective, rational observers (ahem), it seems to us that disclosure alone generally trumps both inaction and punitive regulation in the pay-to-play space. Over the past month or so, we have come to see new evidence of this welcome push for openness at the federal level, particularly with regard to the activities of the newly-formed Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (or the so-called Deficit “Super Committee”).      

For those who have spent all of their time recently tracking satellite orbits and running calcu lations on their chance of having to make a potentially uncovered hom eowners claim, the Super Committee is a balanced delegation of six Democrats and six Republicans (split evenly between members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate) formed in August of this year as a means of permitting Congress and the White House the opportunity to avoid responsibility for identifying an additional $1.5 trillion in federal budgetary cuts over the next decade. Whether one agrees with the premise of granting 12 Members of Congress such extraordinary authority over federal, fiscal decision making, it is readily apparent that the ongoing work of the Super Committee has drawn a great deal of attention from political organizations and commentators across the ideological spectrum. Given the nature of the current (entirely justified) cynicism with the political process, and the enormity of the task before the Super Committee, it should not surprise readers of this blog to learn that much of this attention across the political continuum has been focused on increasing the political transparency of the Committee’s activities. 

One of the more prominent efforts to accomplish this goal has been organized by the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the “power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency.” On August 3, 2011, the Foundation issued a letter to congressional leadership urging them to adopt a series of recommendations that the Foundation believes will ensure the Super Committee operates in a fully open and transparent manner. Those recommendations included: (1) holding live webcasts of all official Committee meetings and hear ings; (2) posting the Committee’s draft recommendations for at least 72 hours prior to a final committee vote; (3) promoting disclosure of every meeting held by Committee members with lobbyists and other “powerful interests”; (4) ensuring the immediate disclosure of all campaign contributions received by Committee members during their service on the Committee; and (5) demanding additional financial disclosure standards for Committee members and their staffers. In addition, the Foundation has teamed up with various transparency activists and supporters to launch a grassroots campaign designed to encourage greater accountability and openness from the Super Committee. The movement’s allies in this endeavor include such left-leaning organizations as The Bre nnan Center for Justice, the Project on Government Oversight, and Public Citizen.

Although not necessarily backing each of the Sunlight Foundation’s specific recommendations, many organizations and individuals on the conservative and libertarian end of the political spectrum have also echoed the Foundation’s calls for transparency in Super Committee activities. For example, Jim Harper of the CATO Institute and Rob Bluey of The Heritage Fou ndation’s Center for Media and Public Policy have both recently demanded that the Super Committee permit open public access to Committee meetings and legislative proposals as a means of ensuring that all citizens are kept abreast of the activities of this uniquely powerful legislative panel. Along those same lines, Harper and Bluey have also called for Committee transparency as a safeguard against the passage of expansive legislation that is subject to little or no debate or public input. 

All of this makes perfect sense. As we have previously observed here, efforts to govern matters such as this from behind closed doors can lead to embarrassing exchanges.

Bi-partisan support for greater Super Committee transparency has even begun to emerge within Congress itself. In fact, in early September, Representatives Mike Quigley (D-IL), Dave Loebsack (D-IA), and Jim Renacci (R-OH) introduced H.R. 2860, the Deficit Committee Transparency Act, which would implement six transparency reforms along the lines of those recommended by the Sunlight Foundation. Similarly, Senators David Vitter (R-LA) and Dean Heller (R-NV) have also introduced two separate bills, S. 1501 (the Budget Control Joint Committee Transparency Act) and S. 1498  (the Super Committee Sunshine Act), that are designed to ensure the openness of Super Committee meetings and greater transparency in the political fundraising of Committee members.

At present, none of the aforementioned bills have been acted upon in Congress, but there does appear to be growing support on both sides of the political aisle for a more open and forthright framework for Super Committee action. Recognizing the growing momentum in support of such transparency, the Committee has taken the initial step of keeping its three preliminary meetings open to the public (and also available for video review over the Internet). It remains to be seen, however, whether this policy will continue as the Committee gets deeper into the task of formulating its deficit-reduction proposals. Likewise, it remains to be seen whether any of the other aforementioned transparency proposals will gain any traction with the Committee itself. Stay tuned in the coming months to find out.

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