Will “Super Committee” Members Be Transparent, or Just Hold Public Meetings?

On September 8th the so-called Super Committee charged with developing a plan for $1.5 trillion in debt reduction over the next ten years will hold its first meeting. The purpose of the meeting is organizational – it will include opening statements by panel members and will focus on consideration of proposed committee rules. The sliver of sunshine is that the Committee appears to be ready to commit to opening up its formal hearings to the public. That news is only some comfort, though, to anyone who is interested in making sure we have an open and accountable government.

By design the Super Committee holds disproportionate power to make will decisions that will touch on all of our lives in some way — be it through raising tax rates or closing loopholes; cutting spending on popular programs; ending subsidies that benefit students, the elderly, homeowners, etc.; reworking the social safety net; and the list goes on. And it lacks real public accountability – only a small percentage of the public will ever get to vote for or against the Committee members. 

One of the factors that contributed to the failure of earlier rounds of negotiations on debt reduction – and to the creation of the Super Committee- is the disproportionate influence of small, but very vocal, constituencies (from both sides of the aisle). Opening the Committe’s meetings to the public is a good step toward fostering an informed, engaged, citizenry and honest debate. It could help make sure a few voices cannot so easily drown out the many.

It is crucial to note, however, that open meetings are only a small part of the strong transparency regime that we along with Sunlight, several of our partners, and others have been encouraging the Committee to adopt. The majority of the recommendations are suggested disclosures that make it harder for special interests to control the outcome (and we have reason to believe special interests are gearing up to do just that). Specifically, we suggest the Committee:

  • post online a record of every meeting held with lobbyists and other powerful interests;
  • post campaign contributions online as they are received; and
  • post online the financial disclosures of committee members and staffers.

At this point in time, we are not hopeful the Super Committee will adopt these policies. It is not too late, however, for individual members to voluntarily disclose lobbying and campaign finance information. With trust in Congress, and in Members of Congress, at all time lows, if the Committee’s members want to have any credibility as being fair brokers for the public, they should make these disclosures. 

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