- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The congressional supercommittee charged with tackling the federal debt crisis is facing overwhelming calls to conduct all its deliberations in the open, but some voices are warning that too much transparency could end up dooming the whole thing.

“Do you want to get anything done?” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican. “I think you lock them in a closed room and let them hammer it out, where they can say what they want to say, where they can bring up what they want to bring up and not have it held against them on the Sunday talk shows.”

Starting with Barack Obama’s campaign pledge in 2008 to broadcast health care negotiations on C-SPAN, the push for transparency as Congress and the White House sort out the big issues of the day has gone into overdrive. But Mr. Davis and other skeptics represent a growing sense that having all the discussions in the open can hinder negotiations.

The debt deal between Mr. Obama and congressional leaders this month spawned the bipartisan panel, which is charged with finding $1.5 trillion over the next decade in tax increases or lower projected spending.

The members of the supercommittee were hand-picked by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the two chambers of Congress, but the legislation said little about how the 12-member panel should operate.

Congressional leaders and dozens of public-interest groups have joined a call to push for transparency and open deliberations. They are seeking to have every official hearing or meeting webcast live and want any meetings with lobbyists or other interest groups to be logged and published.

“This committee has enormous responsibility and power, and must be open to public scrutiny in order to maintain public faith in its work,” the Sunlight Foundation, a public-interest group, said in a letter to leaders this month. “Public interest in the committee’s work could hardly be greater, and the public, along with members of Congress, must be able to evaluate its work, not just its final product.”

The trade-off is clear. It’s often tougher to strike a deal in public, but it’s also tougher to sell a deal that has been written behind closed doors — particularly if the deal needs to be sold to other members of Congress.

Many lawmakers not picked for the panel are pushing for complete openness.

“The supercommittee has the potential to make game-changing reforms that will remedy our budget for decades to come,” 16 House members said in a bipartisan letter. “We simply want to ensure that the process by which these critical decisions are made, that will result in billions of dollars in budget cuts impacting every American, will be as open, transparent and accountable as possible.”

Those who have been through these sorts of endeavors said too much openness could prevent any deal from being reached.

Former Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who was part of the deficit commission that made a crack at budget cuts and tax increases last year, said open meetings give too much ammunition to single-issue interest groups.

“The reason people want a public forum is so that nothing happens. That’s the bottom line here [for] the interest groups on the hard right and the hard left,” Mr. Gregg said. “These interest groups have no interest in the national agenda of fiscal responsibility.”

Mr. Gregg’s group had more than seven months to do its work. The supercommittee will have three months to send a report to the full Congress if it is to meet a Thanksgiving deadline.

Mr. Gregg said that compressed time frame means that hearings might have to be abbreviated so committee members can work on a package. He said the process will have to be open when the committee’s proposal goes to the floors of both chambers of Congress.

Members of the committee have suggested that they will have a mix of open and closed meetings.

“I’ve already had a number of conversations with Democrats and Republicans who are on the committee, and I think that’s expected, and I think that’s healthy for us to have conversations among ourselves,” said Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, as quoted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper. “There will be individual conversations. I’m sure there will be groups of senators and groups of members of the House who will be speaking periodically. So I think there needs to be a good balance here where people have input, people feel like it’s a transparent process, but we also are able to have a candid exchange with colleagues.”

A hybrid approach could bring its own problems. One staffer who worked on the commission said members often would avoid talking about key spending and tax issues in public meetings just so they didn’t ruin backroom negotiations that were going on at the same time.

“There were only a few times that members were really honest,” the staffer said of the public meetings and hearings.

Congress has moved steadily toward more openness, and most committee hearings and markups are now webcast.

Closed-door negotiations have a long and storied history, going back to the 1787 convention that drafted the Constitution. All of the proceedings that summer in Philadelphia were kept secret throughout, and most delegates took the obligations seriously — so much so that several refused to let their notes be published until after they died, decades later.

Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, has written a book, “Stealth Democracy,” that says most voters don’t want to see Congress in action.

“These Americans would much rather have Congress do its work behind closed doors so long as their representatives are not being bought by special interests and so long as the public has the opportunity to learn about decisions, the reasons for and against them, and why their representatives decided what they did,” she said.

She said transparency is “often good, but not in this case,” because lawmakers would have to spend so much time defending their ideas against attacks from interest groups.

“If the supercommittee had to air every idea in public, it would be a disaster,” she said.