Clear need for supercommittee transparency

When Senate and House negotiators crafted their deal to create the so-called “supercommittee” on federal spending reduction, they forgot that one of the key reasons for Congress’ abysmal public-approval ratings is the lack of transparency in the legislative process. It was especially disappointing that House Republican leaders went along with the deal’s provision that meetings of the supercommittee would be held in secrecy, and that its product would be rushed directly to the floor of the Senate and House for an up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed.

They agreed to this anti-democratic deal despite the promise of House Speaker John Boehner at the outset of the current Congress that, “The days of quickly ramming massive bills through Congress — such as the ‘stimulus’ that didn’t work and the job-killing national energy tax — are over. Under the new rules, the House will post all bills online at least three calendar days before a vote, giving lawmakers, the public and the media a chance to read each proposal and understand its impact.” House Republicans adhered to the new rule for the most part, but not when it came time to cut the supercommittee deal.

As a result, the American people have since been forced to rely upon leaked reports from the dozen supercommittee members, or their staffs, for incomplete information on the panel’s deliberations. The panel’s deadline of Nov. 23 for completing its deliberations is fast approaching, and it’s time for congressional leaders to bring this process out from behind closed doors and into the light of day. That is the only way the public will know before the final vote who faces higher taxes, which government programs, if any, face genuine long-term spending reductions or outright elimination, and, most important, who among the special interests that have been spending millions lobbying the members will benefit from the provisions of the final agreement.

As the Sunlight Foundation said in a recent memo on the issue, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Supercommittee members still have the opportunity to redeem some measure of integrity by letting the public in on their legislation by posting their final recommendations online 72 hours before their vote. There is even a bill — the Deficit Committee Transparency Act (HR 2860) — that would require that. But, as of yet, members of Congress have shown little appetite for mandating supercommittee transparency.”  

There is always the temptation to appoint a select group of “experts,” give them extraordinary powers, and shield them from public pressure in the hope they will objectively produce a reasonable solution to a vexing problem.

That temptation should always be resisted, particularly in a democratic republic. There is still time for Congress to do the right thing on the supercommittee’s transparency.

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