Over the last week, the push for an open “supercommittee” has grown into a national issue. The issue has become the subject of pronouncements from congressional leaders, numerous bills, analysis and advocacy from non-profits, and intense public debate. The issue has now crossed over from a sidebar issue, to being a central part of the “supercommittee” story.
We’re now getting a sense of where opposition to an open “supercommittee” might come from. While Sunlight is calling for 5 core transparency recommendations, among others, we’ve occasionally seen resistance to the idea of open meetings for the joint committee. We’re calling for “live webcasts of all official meetings and hearings,” and we still don’t know whether the supercommittee will hold public meetings or not.
The concern is that public meetings will make it harder to make tough decisions, causing further political paralysis. This criticism, however, fails to distinguish between two things: making official meetings of the committee public, and making all deliberations among members of the committee public. The first should be a no-brainer.
Official meetings of important government committees are held in public in the US. That’s been reliably true for decades, and it’s how we expect our government to work. For good reason, too — representation can only work if voters have some sense of what their representatives are doing, so that their vote bears some relation to their representative’s record. There are some exceptions to this general rule; congressional committees meet in out of public view for well-defined, largely noncontroversial reasons that are spelled out in the rules of the House and Senate. Conference committees are the biggest exception to this rule, often evading requirements to meet publicly, but their work is in reconciling already passed legislation that has passed both the House and Senate.
And this joint committee is doing far more than just reconciling already-passed legislation. It’s a replacement for Congress altogether, save final approval. The House and Senate may have bound themselves to this requirement, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable. The prerogatives of the minority have been completely waived in both chambers. For this bill, there is no motion to recommit in the House, and no filibuster in the Senate. Perhaps most unusually, inaction has been made nearly impossible, as failing to act means incurring deep budget cuts that were designed to be politically unpalatable. This committee was designed to have to work, and Congress has been shunted out of the way. These procedural requirements add up to mean that the joint committee is functioning as a replacement for Congress, and needs to be *more* open than Congress in order to be considered legitimate. Holding official meetings in public is only the most basic first step toward that accountability.
We’ve seen the misguided objection that open meetings would squelch deliberations, and make it impossible to work through politically difficult ideas. This is wrong. Nothing about holding public meetings would keep Senator Murray from talking with Senator Toomey in private about any topic they please. Having official meetings be public just guarantees the limited window into official business that everyone has come to rightfully expect in a democracy. While these meetings may be full of pre-prepared speeches and posturing, they’re still a public exercise that is fully worth having.
To go beyond public meetings and affect deliberations and negotiations, as some commenters fear, would take far more than what Sunlight is proposing. Ex parte rules do exist in other contexts (like the FCC), and in some legislatures. But let’s be clear: in order to force all negotiations among some Members of Congress to be public, we’d be imposing a speech restriction. And restricting the speech of our representatives is an unwise idea, to say the least.
In place of trying to restrict the speech of Members of Congress, you can carve out certain kinds of interactions which need to be reported publicly. And that’s exactly what exists already through our Lobbyist Disclosure Act, that Sunlight (and Reps. Quigley and Renacci) are calling to have expanded for the supercommittee. If only 12 Members are going to be given the power to decide our alternative to the unpopular trigger, we should know when they’re meeting with registered lobbyists or other powerful interests, and who is donating to their campaigns.
But even more basic than lobbying disclosure is the idea that the official work of our government should be done in full public view. The perceived legitimacy of the “super committee” depends on it. American dialog and deliberation are not so weak that they can’t survive alongside public meetings.