As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. In Washington, great power should also require great transparency.
The hurriedly passed Budget Control Act raised the nation's debt ceiling and made some efforts to reduce the deficit. The law also demands that Congress reduce the deficit another $1.2 trillion through spending cuts and additional revenue. The power to choose how those reductions will be concentrated in the hands of the 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Debt Reduction, nicknamed the "Super Congress."
Are you worried yet? Considering that the debt ceiling negotiations — including the idea to create this committee — were conducted mostly behind closed doors and in secret meetings, you should be.
The last thing we need is an all-powerful congressional committee allowed to make crucial spending decisions without the scrutiny of an engaged citizenry and press. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), where I work, and other advocacy groups are calling on the Super Congress to deliberate in the open and make decisions based on what's best for the American public, not powerful special interests.
Corporate lobbyists are already lining up to meet with the newly appointed members of the debt committee, but none of these lobbyists are clamoring for a transparent process. They'd like nothing more than to be able to sway the committee behind the scenes, out of the public eye.
To prevent that type of influence peddling, POGO and its coalition partners sent an Aug. 8 letter to House and Senate leaders from both parties outlining steps they can take to ensure transparency.
Meetings convened by the Super Congress should be open to the public, broadcast live on its website, and archived online along with transcripts. In addition to the webcasts, all agendas, witness lists, and testimonies should be made publicly available online.
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When defense, health, oil, and other industry lobbyists come knocking, the committee should post information about those meetings with staff and committee members to the website. This should include any written materials from the meetings and a summary of verbal communications. All committee and staff members should post their financial disclosure reports online.
As special interests assert their influence with campaign contributions, committee members should disclose those contributions within 24 hours of receiving them. Without these rules, special interests will have the loudest voice because they have the fattest checkbooks, and will have the most access in secret proceedings.
The timely posting of all of this information to the committee's website is only one aspect of transparency. The committee must also facilitate and accept public comments about any proposals. This is an important principle — and a part of federal rulemaking by agencies — but rarely, if ever, done by Congress. With the prospect that these debt reductions will deeply affect all Americans, it's an important step to take now.
The committee website should have an easy-to-use way for people to contact the committee and its staff. In addition, the committee should ask for and publish comments from the public about their report before a final vote. The final report should be posted at least 72 hours before the final vote to allow for public feedback.
To help the public provide an informed opinion on the committee's report, all proposals received by the Super Congress from standing congressional committees, as well as the Congressional Budget Office analyses of the numbers behind the committee recommendations, should be disclosed.
No matter what it decides, there will be plenty of contention over this committee and its report. Reducing at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending is a formidable task, but one that can only be completed with the utmost integrity if the process is open. The arguments of sensitivity or urgency don't trump the need for transparency and involvement by the public.