Super Congress Debt Reduction Has Little Transparency

Should Super Congress Be Super Transparent?

WASHINGTON -- The proposed so-called "super Congress," created by congressional leaders in the debt deal and required to find $1.5 trillion in debt reduction over the next ten years, could wind up making those decisions behind closed doors, away from the public eye.

The text of the budget deal reached by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders contains few specific public disclosure provisions for the committee. The standing committees of Congress are allowed to send suggestions for ways to reduce the debt to the super committee members, but there is, as yet, no provision for the disclosure of those reports. The final report is required to be publicly disclosed upon completion, however there is no requirement that the report be placed online. There are also no official requirements for web-casting of committee meetings.

"Anything that they are getting should be made public," Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said to HuffPost. "If someone is going to send something to the committee and say, 'this is what our opinions are,' the public has a right to know that."

Transparency advocates want to make sure the super committee operates in the open and in a manner that is responsive to the public, especially as it is tasked with crafting such an important policy.

"Since they have a direct route to the floor and the bill can't be amended, this committee should be accountable to the public," John Wonderlich, policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, told HuffPost. "It's not just that we see the bill when it's finished, but we see what was proposed beforehand."

"I think it's disappointing that they didn't put more transparency into the legislation," Project On Government Oversight's Angela Canterbury, director of public policy, said to HuffPost. "The only thing that I saw in the legislation was that they should make public their proposal and legislative language. That's not going to cut it. That's not even the minimum we should expect."

Aside from the specific language in the bill, the super committee could fall flat on transparency by simply following the rules for committee openness.

While the House Rules were updated by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) to include a provision requiring committees to webcast their hearings "to the maximum extent possible," some very important committee business was conducted without video or audio broadcast. The House Appropriations subcommittees routinely held bill markups in rooms that were not wired for video or audio, cutting the public out of the process.

Even worse, the Senate Armed Services subcommittees held all but one of their markups for this year's defense authorization bill in closed session. The only open session was held by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Readiness And Management Support.

The co-chairs of the committee will be able to set their own rules for the committee, providing an opportunity to set openness rules. The rules for joint committees requires that the first meeting be held in open session and be used to determine committee rules.

"The co-chairs can make this a transparent process so that the public can participate and all of the members of Congress can remain informed," Canterbury said.

Another concern is that the super committee could turn into shark bait for lobbyists.

"Our lobbying disclosure laws are easily evaded, and only require reporting quarterly for those who don't skirt the law," Wonderlich wrote in a blog post on Tuesday. "Committee members should go beyond statutory requirements, and post every meeting they take with lobbyists or other powerful interests online, along with any materials submitted to them."

The Obama administration routinely set lobbying disclosure rules beyond those required under law for regulatory and spending decisions that were connected to large, well-known pieces of legislation. Both the stimulus bill spending and the regulations set under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law have been subject to extensive lobbying disclosure requirements.

The committee structure, however, does not appear to be designed for transparency and public access. By tying the hands of the committee through time constraints and reporting deadlines, congressional leaders made it harder for the group to operate in an open manner.

Ellis explained that the time constraints placed on the "super Congress" will require a "balancing act" between public access and efficiency: "It's as much about form as it is about function."

"This is the same as the whole debt debate," Wonderlich said. "The power struggle trumps process entirely. The committee is designed for power, not for transparency and accountability."

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