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Editorial Memo: Super Committee Must Let Us Read Their Bill

November 10, 2011

Contact: Gabriela Schneider 202-742-1520 ext 236

In just a couple of weeks, the Super Committee faces its deadline for submitting recommendations to cut the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. This is no typical committee. Its recommendations will go immediately to the floor for an up-or-down vote without amendments, and its structure undermines the usual process of open deliberation through congressional hearings and floor debate. The committee’s concentration of power has shut Americans off from a public conversation about the economic future of our country. This is hardly a democratic, participatory process.

The Super Committee has kept Americans in the dark about its proceedings and those who have sought to influence its members, no matter how many editorials, letters to the editor or constituent complaints have been lodged about its secrecy. Moreover, the public—and the rest of Congress—may only learn the text of the committee’s proposal well after the committee’s vote is held.

Even now as the debate unfolds, we must rely upon news reports of hearsay and innuendo, instead of substance about how they will tackle America’s debt problem. When someone defends secrecy for the Super Committee, they’re saying that it’s acceptable to fundamentally restructure government spending and public policies without public hearings, and without the accountability that comes with a truly public process. Even other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the super secrecy of the Super Committee, according to a New York Times report.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Super Committee 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 Super Committee transparency.

From the inception of the Super Committee, the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation has led the call, now joined by some 40 organizations, to shine a light on its work by urging this special Committee to adhere to a “72 hour rule.” (Our other recommendations include disclosing campaign contributions as they are received, disclosing any lobbying contacts and holding public meetings.)

Posting bills online prior to consideration has precedence, and the concept has bipartisan support. House Republicans’ 2010 Pledge to America advocated for this transparency measure, and Speaker John Boehner ensured that House Rules for the 112th Congress included a rule that all non-emergency legislation be publicly disclosed, in response to public expectation that all Americans should be able to “read the bill.” In announcing this rules change, the Speaker said: “The days of quickly ramming massive bills through Congress...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.” Speaker Boehner has largely abided by this rule. Likewise, when Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House during the 111th Congress, the health care bill was posted online 72 hours before consideration. That happened even before a House Rule required legislation to be posted online for public access prior to congressional action.

Unfortunately, there is also precedent for rushing legislation to a vote without public consideration. The very legislation that created the secretive Super Committee, the Budget Control Act, was foisted on Congress and the public at the last minute. While leaders in Congress are to be commended for their new commitment to transparency, it’s important to recall that it is also built on a dark history. To be sure, Congress has a history of evading the public by passing legislation crafted in secret, including the PATRIOT Act in 2001, the so-called “bank bailout” bill in 2008, the Recovery Act in 2009, to name a few.

So far, the Super Committee has made no commitment to post their recommendations online for 72 hours before they vote. Who knows if the public will know what programs will be cut or what taxes will be raised, or whether it will contain a radically reworked “secret farm bill” as some news outlets are reporting? If the Super Committee members are a proxy for the entire U.S. Congress, then they cannot exclude the rest of Congress—and their constituents—from accessing the essential decisions we’ll all have to face.

No matter what the Super Committee recommends—or whether or not we agree with it—one thing is certain: Lawmakers and their constituents MUST have at least 72 hours to read the Super Committee’s proposal before they vote on it.

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-partisan non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit SunlightFoundation.com to learn more about Sunlight’s projects, including InfluenceExplorer.com and Party Time.