Supercommittee stays opaque

Questions budget director for politically charged facts

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The congressional debt-reduction panel met publicly for the first time in more than a month Wednesday but offered little public evidence of making progress as the clock ticks toward a Thanksgiving deadline.

Instead, it was at private meetings this week that the so-called supercommittee made the most noise, after aides leaked news of a Democratic plan to cut federal deficits by about $3 trillion. The proposal calls for about $1.3 trillion in new tax revenue during the next decade coupled with spending cuts of the same amount.

Republicans reportedly have a counterproposal, but no details have surfaced.

On Wednesday, the 12 members of the bipartisan panel spent almost two hours lobbing rhetorical questions at their only witness - Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas W. Elmendorf - with the main purpose of receiving answers to back up their partisan positions.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat and a panel co-chairman, asked Mr. Elmendorf to assess the economic impact of further discretionary spending cuts beyond those Congress already has authorized - an inquiry meant to highlight Democratic distrust of Republican-proposed cuts.

“Over time, cuts in discretionary spending reduce in general the services that the American public receives,” Mr. Elmendorf said.

Conversely, the supercommittee’s other co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, used some of his allotted time to ask whether President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package has accelerated growth in government discretionary spending.

Mr. Elmendorf, Congress‘ chief budget scorekeeper, responded in the affirmative, though he added that the package included other elements, such as tax cuts.

Wednesday’s hearing did little to dispel widespread complaints that the supercommittee - which includes six members from both the House and Senate equally divided by party - meets almost exclusively in secret and hasn’t been forthcoming to the media or the public about their private discussions.

“There’s a certain irony that they had their first public hearing in weeks today at the same time the panel decided to leak news of their proposal to the press,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for greater government openness. “We shouldn’t have any reservations to say their real work is happening privately.”

Even some Capitol Hill lawmakers have grumbled about the panel’s lack of transparency.

“The supercommittee’s public hearing today was nothing more than an extended photo opportunity and a weak nod to transparency,” said Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican who isn’t a member of the panel. “The American people deserve to know how these 12 members of Congress intend to spend their money or increase their taxes.”

The supercommittee, born out of this past summer’s bitter debt-ceiling deal, is tasked to identify by Thanksgiving $1.5 trillion in savings or new tax revenue. Failure would trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that would affect a wide range of domestic programs and the Pentagon.

The two big roadblocks facing the panel are how to tackle entitlement and tax reforms. Democrats have resisted significant cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other entitlement programs, while Republicans have been steadfast in their opposition to any tax increases.

The supercommittee will hold its next public hearing on Tuesday. Witnesses scheduled to testify include former Republican Sens. Alan Simpson and Pete Domenici, and former Clinton administration advisers Erskine Bowles and Alice Rivlin, who all worked with past debt-reduction groups.

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