For Super Committee, Mum’s the Word

Posted September 27, 2011 at 4:07pm

In the super committee’s four weeks of work, the group’s calculus has been simple: 12 Members, five exits out of a meeting room in the Capitol Visitor Center, no comment. 

The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction has held three public meetings and four full-panel private sessions, including on Monday and a 6.5-hour affair today, but it’s unclear what kind of progress is being made or where the group is headed. The bipartisan, bicameral panel has been tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in cuts before Thanksgiving, and coalitions of lawmakers in both chambers introduced bills calling for super committee transparency. But given the delicate nature of their discussions, policymakers on the panel seem to be trying to balance shedding light on their work without divulging so much as to jeopardize it.

“I think you all know the rules,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl told a pack of reporters today as they chased him down a spiral staircase in the Capitol Visitor Center. The Arizona Republican directed reporters to seek comment from the committee’s co-chairmen, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

After today’s marathon meeting, Hensarling slipped out a back door through a hallway blocked off from the media. Murray walked past a bank of cameras only to tell reporters: “I’m not going to discuss any details. We had a really good day though,” as she headed for the exits.

It has long been conventional wisdom surrounding negotiating groups that the more lawmakers involved in talks keep quiet, the more productive those negotiations are. When aides and principals start leaking to the media, that’s usually a sign that discussions inside the room are crumbling or have hit an impasse.

Perhaps cognizant of the gravity of its mission, the group outlined an entire series of rules on “Public Access and Transparency” when it adopted its bylaws by voice vote earlier this month.

According to the panel’s rules, only public hearings must be announced seven days in advance, and each hearing and meeting “shall be open to the public and the media unless the Joint Select Committee, in open session and a quorum being present, determines by majority vote that such hearing or meeting shall be held in closed session.”

The rules also state that to the “maximum extent practicable,” the committee shall “provide audio and video coverage of each hearing or meeting for the transaction of business in a manner that allows the public to easily listen to and view the proceedings,” and “maintain the recordings of such coverage in a manner that is easily accessible to the public.”

To date, Members have had more meetings behind closed doors than they have in public, and most requests for comment have either been met with no answer or vague “We’re making progress” sound bytes.

Sources close to the committee say that the panel is operating under the normal rules of any other Congressional committee, that private discussions happen regularly and that the group is committed to being transparent in public hearings, votes and in posting legislative language, when Members have it. “Meeting” as outlined in the rules is not the same as “less formal caucuses or working sessions,” as Murray highlighted in a back-and-forth with Hensarling in the group’s first public hearing.

Indeed, the super committee seems more focused on getting work done than in outlining that work to the media.

“To make progress, the members of this committee need to get around the bargaining table and speak frankly about what they’re willing to put on that table and what compromises they are willing to make to get a bipartisan deal,” an aide to a committee member said. “And like every bipartisan group that has looked at this issue before them, some of that is going to have to happen behind closed doors.” 

When asked whether the super committee was keeping its commitment to transparency, Sen. John Kerry responded that the panel was keeping its commitment to getting “work done.”

“We feel like we’re getting to the meat of things,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

When the co-chairmen laid out the group’s ground rules in the super committee’s first public session, Murray made it clear that although the lawmakers would strive for as much transparency as possible, they reserved the right to discuss matters privately, like any other Congressional panel.

“I believe the American people deserve to have full access to committee business the way they do with every committee here in Congress, and I believe these rules will allow us to do exactly that,” Murray said in the Sept. 8 session. “We looked at how House and Senate committees operate, and we worked together to make sure this committee met publicly but also had the ability to meet just among Members to discuss important issues.”

Key outside players are keeping silent as well, creating a protective bubble around this fall’s all-important panel. When talking with the media, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he prefers to let the group do its work and is not trying to influence it. Moreover, leadership in both chambers had been too focused on legislation to avoid government shutdown to really weigh in on the super committee’s progress.

“I am leaving the super committee alone. I’m not giving them any advice. If one of the individual members of any of the 12 ask me a question, I will talk to them in private,” Reid told reporters Sept. 20. “But I’m not out here going to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. They have an extremely difficult job. … I’m not about to start negotiating with all of you as to what they should or shouldn’t do.”

With Congress in recess, the super committee is not slated for any more full-panel sessions this week.