- The Washington Times - Monday, July 4, 2011

House Speaker John A. Boehner has preached the need for Congress to have “an adult conversation” with the public. President Obama, when he was running for the office, promised to bring greater transparency to Washington.

But as congressional leaders and the White House struggle to hammer out a deal to increase the federal government’s borrowing limit — a move the Treasury Department says is necessary to avoid another financial crisis — the talks that could produce the year’s most crucial piece of legislation are being conducted outside the public view behind closed doors.

“Right now they’re basically colluding with each other to hide from the public — Boehner, Obama, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid — they’re each saying that they don’t want to have this conversation in public,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit group dedicated to increasing government transparency and accountability.

“What they’re delivering here is absolute lack of meaningful disclosure and completely secretive discussions about enormously important decisions that they’re making, and that’s just not an acceptable state of affairs.”

Mr. Wonderlich said it’s unrealistic to expect all of the negotiations to be done in a public setting, however desirable. But he said the Obama administration and party leaders in Congress have failed to live up to campaign promises to bring greater transparency to Washington.

“All we know about [the debt limit talks] is what each side chooses to disclose,” he said. “Leaders that like to talk about being open and including the public should be able to do better than where we are now, because it’s farcically secretive as it stands now.”

The lack of transparency in the debt limit negotiations also has irked some on Capitol Hill.

“Is it healthy to do these things in secret, drop them in on Aug. 1st and say it’s got to be passed by Aug. 2nd? I don’t think that’s good,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said Wednesday on CNN. “This is really wrong and I object to it.”

Mr. Sessions said any measure on increasing the debt ceiling should be subjected to the regular legislative process, which includes committee hearings, amendments and floor debates.

“The American people need to see this process,” he said.

Not all of Mr. Sessions’ colleagues agree.

“You don’t need each detail [released] … It is just an excuse,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told reporters in late June. “Speaker Boehner ought to sit in a room and negotiate as he said — like adults, not walk away from the table … and then we’ll get something done.”

Mr. Schumer added that Mr. Obama already has made public a blueprint for decreasing the deficit

Yet some political experts say that, sometimes, the best way to advance critical and controversial issues is to do so initially outside the public glare and interference from other lawmakers.

“I think it’s best to make the sausage behind closed doors, otherwise nobody would want to eat the meal,” said Darrell M. West, a political expert with the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank. “It’s not a pretty sight when politicians are having to make the tough decisions that they’re making right now.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden and a bipartisan group of six members of Congress met 11 times behind closed doors in May and June to try to broker a deal to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt limit — the legal limit the federal government can borrow to pay for its operations and debt obligations.

The talks broke down in late June after Republicans complained that Democrats insisted any deal include tax increases on corporations, a position Republicans said they can’t accept.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, have demanded any compromise include spending cuts to equal the amount the debt ceiling is raised — at least $2 trillion.

Time is running out on a getting a deal done, as Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner says the debt limit must be increased by Aug. 2 or the government risks defaulting on its loans, a scenario he says could trigger another financial crisis.

The president met privately last week with Senate party leaders in an attempt to jump-start the negotiations. More meetings are expected.

Because the two parties are so far apart, Mr. West said it’s probably smart they hash out a basic framework in private first before debating the details later in a more public venue.

“They’re not writing legislation [now], they’re debating various policy principles,” he said. “I think there will be more transparency when we get to the legislative phase and are actually drafting legislation and voting on the bill.”

GOP negotiators also would find it difficult to discuss tax increase options in a public venue without risking a revolt from the dozens of Republican freshmen in Congress aligned with the conservative tea party movement and its ‘no new taxes at any cost’ mantra.

“Where you’re really asking people to make some concessions that potentially could enrage their own party bases and could put them in serious jeopardy, but also you want to talk about ways you might want to soften the blow, cushion things, find a way to make it look a little better, you’ve got to do that in private,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expect with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.

“Those kinds of things, as you try to craft components and put them together, are almost impossible to do in public.”

• Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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