A Super Congress requires super transparency

Danielle Brian Contributor
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If this were medieval times, we might be able to lock the so-called Super Congress high up in a tower, safe from the hordes of lobbyists massing in the nation’s capitol.

One can only imagine what deficit-cutting ideas the debt reduction committee could come up with if we kept its 12 members locked up in that tower until they figured out how to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit.

Unfortunately, what we’re going to get instead are powerful lobbyists — many of them former members of Congress or congressional staff — pulling out all the stops to protect their special interests from the committee’s budget axe.

That’s one reason it’s encouraging to hear top Republicans and Democrats, alike, calling for the Joint Select Committee on Debt Reduction to embrace transparency. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) said that “there’s a strong commitment to having open hearings and a public process.”

This isn’t only smart, it’s essential if we’re to ensure that the debt committee not cut backroom deals. However, open meetings are just a start.

The committee should make EVERYTHING available to the public on a central website — logs of all meetings with lobbyists and special interests, the information the committee is basing its numbers on, all legislative proposals posted when received from standing committees and proposals generated by the Super Congress posted at least 72 hours before votes and financial disclosures of all committee and staff members.

The members of the Super Congress didn’t get there by chance. As a group, they are savvy, well-connected and influential. Their new status demands that every thing they do from now until their task is over be open to scrutiny.

It’s perfectly reasonable to worry whether Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) can separate her role as political fundraiser for the Democratic Party’s senate candidates and her new appointment as co-chair of the debt committee. It’s fair game to question whether the other co-chair, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), feels more strongly about protecting Wall Street, than Main Street.

Make everything the committee does transparent and there’s a greater chance that the public interests will have a fighting chance against the sway of the political spending done on behalf of the 12 committee members by special interests.

The skeptics and cynics argue that transparency will lead to public posturing. At least one pundit has argued that it would be better to let the debt committee operate in secret, so that members could speak frankly to each other without fear of a public backlash.

Unfortunately, in the times we’re living in, there is no tower high enough to keep special interest lobbyists away from committee members.

If the committee is allowed to operate in secret, then the only people who will have access to them are lobbyists — many of whom are former lawmakers hired to six- and seven-figure salaries precisely because of the kind of access they have to their former colleagues.

Requiring the committee to make its decisions in the open allows the public to oppose bad ideas before they are final and also deters policymakers from making backroom deals they would be embarrassed to make in public.

The public needs to own this process and take responsibility for what happens. Transparency, alone, is not a silver bullet for our woes, but it is a key part of the solution.

Danielle Brian is the executive director for the Project On Government Oversight.