PJ Media

Is the Super Committee's Secrecy Brewing a Rank-and-File Revolt?

With only two weeks to go, the so-called super committee may be facing a congressional rank-and-file rebellion from lawmakers on the left and right who have been turned off by the insular group’s high degree of secrecy and fears the entire fast-track process may be unconstitutional. There is an underground sentiment in the city — not reported by the mainstream media yet — that the once highly vaunted super committee may facing serious political trouble.

The super committee is a group of twelve members — six Democrats and six Republicans — who were appointed by House and Senate leadership last summer as part of the deficit deal with the White House.  Formally called the “Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction,” the group is mandated to find at least $1.2 trillion in deficit relief.  Failure to come up with a proposal automatically triggers spending cuts, $500 billion of which are targeted for the Pentagon.

The group potentially wields unbridled power over the country’s economic fate for the next decade, but virtually nothing is known about its deliberations.  One House member told PJ Media there is an “eerie silence” from it and from the House and Senate leadership.

Others believe the super committee may now be facing a form of  “de-legitimization” as it has proceeded without offering any substantive information to the public or to Congress. There is a whole confluence of complaints afflicting the panel’s credibility, ranging from its obsession with secrecy, serious ethical problems, campaign fundraising conflicts, and questions about the constitutionality of its unconventional process.

A senior conservative congressional staffer told PJ Media, “Is the super committee dead? Not yet. But it’s moving toward it.”

There also are concerns about ethics problems surrounding the super committee. Currently the panel members do not have to report contacts with outside lobbyists or special interests. And the committee’s work is all about money — big money, and big special interests.

Procedurally the  super committee process is unprecedented and designed to limit debate. If any proposal secures seven of the twelve votes, the super committee will report out its debt reduction plan to both the Senate and House by November 23. There, all amendments will be forbidden and lawmakers will only be able to vote it up or down.

Most troubling to both the left and the right is that there has been no real information about the super committee substance or deliberations. Originally there was an idea that private discussions would de-politicize the issue of cutting spending and entitlements. But the committee’s operating style seems more akin to a Kremlin operation than a U.S. congressional body. As a result,  its credibility has suffered and privately Washington observers believe its reputation is spiraling downward.

There have been no public agendas, records, reports, memos, or documents produced by the group. There have been no written proposals anyone can publicly read or assess. With the exception of a few public meetings, all of the real closed door sessions have been shuttered tight.

Meanwhile, lobbyists with special access to the twelve select members have been marching up to Capitol Hill. The lobbying effort there has been called a “feeding frenzy,” with special interests swarming over Capitol Hill to get their concession or victory from the so-called “gang of twelve.”

The process completely circumvents  a century of congressional rules and constitutionally established processes. Normally legislation requires public hearings, committee votes, passage by both houses of Congress, and joint conference committees to hammer out differences.  The super committee process is, at best, an extra-constitutional process and perhaps even unconstitutional.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, believes it is the latter. “The problem of the super committee, it destroys that entire constitutional framework and ultimately will produce  bad public policy,” he told PJ Media.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has gone further, saying he might eventually challenge the super committee’s constitutionality.  He told CNBC: “Well, I would challenge it in the courts and say that is not a constitutional function.” He added,“There’s no authority to have a super Congress who takes over for what the House and Senate are supposed to do.”

At the end, there will be immense pressures on all the lawmakers to vote in favor of their plan. A defeat could spark a further downgrade of the U.S. debt by rating agencies and stoke another steep downturn on Wall Street.  Standard and Poor´s downgraded the U.S. debt rating shortly after the $1.2 trillion deficit goal was announced by the White House.

However, since August many House conservatives have been uneasy about the super committee’s work. A staffer related the tensions felt at a recent conservative House briefing led by super committee co-chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX).  Reportedly, Hensarling faced blunt criticism from his colleagues.  “They generally asked straight up questions,” the staffer related.

At the other end of the spectrum, liberal Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) has denounced the super committee too, calling it a “super secret committee.”  She has introduced a bill to strip the group of any power, calling it a “bad deal.”

Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) sounded the same theme at a September news conference when he introduced legislation to require more super committee openness.“We cannot allow this committee to dissolve into a super-secret committee – its responsibility is much too great,” he said. Five Republican U.S. senators joined Heller in co-sponsoring the legislation.

Outside of Congress, there is a coalition of openness advocacy organizations that have denounced the closed door proceedings. John Wonderlich, a  policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, told PJ Media the super committee was losing congressional support across the political spectrum. “Most lawmakers probably have a certain disgust about how the super committee works because it goes against everything that Congress is supposed to stand for,” he said.

The problem for everyone is that no one in Washington really knows what is happening within the insular group and it will have immense effects on the economy. The super committee process has been unfavorably compared to the Obamacare legislation when backroom deals hammered out in secrecy led to that massive piece of legislation.

Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the liberal group Public Citizen, said one reason for the counter movement against the super committee is that it holds so much authority. He told PJ Media that “virtually everything that’s behind our economy is on the table for these twelve to decide the fate of.  This is very unprecedented.”

Holman rejected the entire super committee process. “The super committee has unprecedented powers and unprecedented ties to special interests groups.  They are all largely operating in secret,” he said.

The committee has withheld information from so many in Congress that there is the risk of few stakeholders coming  to its defense.  Is it possible the group’s proposals might be defeated in either the House or Senate when it comes to an up-down vote with no amendments? “I definitely think that’s possible,” Wonderlich told PJ Media.

The lobbying has been intense from an army of K Street lobbyists. There are those with personal connections to the twelve House and Senate members. At least 90 former congressional aides have joined high-priced lobby firms and are contacting their former bosses. Twenty-five of them worked for Democrat Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and fourteen used to work for Senator John Kerry (D-MA).

Then there are campaign fundraising conflicts. Although three super committee members have foresworn campaign fundraising while serving on the super committee, the rest are meeting and greeting donors at receptions and parties.

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the group’s co-chairwoman, is herself one of the biggest Democratic Party fundraisers. She officially serves as the chief fundraiser for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Murray has refused to step down from her post. She participated in a Washington DSCC fundraiser as recently as November 8 in Washington, D.C.

At the opening of the session there were some nods towards openness and promises that members would not be corrupted by their new appointments. Rep. Hersarling said the process would be open and the public would have “adequate time” to review the complex ten year program the group is supposed to draw up.  He said:

There will be ample opportunities for the public to have their opinions heard. And like any other committee of Congress, there will also be some discussions among members that will not be public. However, no final product will be adopted without ample public notice and a public vote.

This is not how it worked out.  As Wonderlich noted:

All we see is a sort of a shadow of the real negotiations, playing itself out in largely anonymous quotes to the media in the form of staffers describing a plan that their boss has offered or that the opposite side has offered.

Says McClintock, “I strongly suspect that that product will be sadly lacking.”

What could the super committee do to salvage its reputation?  Among other things, it could start posting its actual proposals.

As Wonderlich concluded:

They could start posting actual drafts of what they are actually proposing.  I think that would go a long way toward people having a sense that what are doing isn’t just backroom horse trading, but it actually somehow involves making decisions about what’s best for the country. So rather than anonymously saying your plan is great, seeing some actual plans would do it in making a little bit of progress toward people taking them seriously.