The debt limit bill that just passed the House creates a powerful new joint committee (the “Super Congress”), with enormous power to recommend large cuts to the House and Senate. The committee’s recommendations have far more power than those of a normal standing committee, because the House and Senate must vote on their recommendations, and they can’t be amended. So this deal gives 12 Members of Congress what even the Speaker and the Majority leader don’t have: a direct path to a vote on the floor.
That’s enormously powerful. And as the joint committee decides where the $1.5 trillion dollar axe will fall, you can bet that a carnival of fundraising and lobbying will accompany their negotiations. If this committee isn’t transparent, it’ll be a failure of public policy, and a black eye on Congress.
The debt ceiling bill that creates the joint committee says very little about how it’ll function. The committee’s recommendations must be public, and the vote they take on approving the recommendations must be public, too. Chamber rules also require that the first meeting of a joint committee be open to the public. But beyond that, we have zero assurances as to how open this committee will be.
Will the meetings of the committee be webcast? The Rules don’t require it, but there’s no justification for not webcasting the entirety of every meeting of the committee’s work, and archiving the videos for easy review.
Will we know what other congressional committees recommend to the joint committee? The bill allows other committees to suggest cuts to the joint committee, but says nothing of whether those recommendations will be public. They should be online as soon as they’re received.
Will we know who is lobbying the members and staff of the committee? Our lobbying disclosure laws are easily evaded, and only require reporting quarterly for those who don’t skirt the law. 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.
What fundraising is happening at the same time? If you’re among the few people deciding the country’s future, then the public deserves to know who is donating money to your campaign at the same time. Committee members should post their campaign contributions on their campaign sites as they receive them. If they’re hosting fundraisers, they should post information on those as well. If they don’t, Sunlight will try to keep tabs on what they’re doing through Party Time.
Staffers to the committee and committee members should post their personal financial disclosure forms on the website of the committee, too, if they’re required to fill them out. Public confidence in the merit of the committees decisions depends on there being not even a perceived conflict of interest.
This list is just a start. If you’ve got other ideas, please add them in the comments. This joint committee is being given enormous power to pick winners and losers, and chart a course for the entire country. Even if the process that led us here was abysmally, corrosively secretive, the new joint committee can protect public confidence, and be at least as transparent as they are disproportionately powerful.
Update: Friday, 8/5 — For updates on this effort, please see this post.