Rep. Darrell Issa has become one of Congress’ biggest champions for transparency and openness in government — except when it comes to the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.
Known for his aggressive messaging against the Obama administration, the California Republican, who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and is co-chairman of the Congressional Transparency Caucus, has taken a milder stance when it comes to the deficit panel.
“This committee deliberation is not likely to be open and transparent. You’re not going to get that. You know it; I know it,” Issa said in an interview. “There comes a point at which even transparency says that the deliberation process that is not part of the body is going to ultimately, at some point, be private.”
Issa’s opinions directly conflict with those of his Transparency Caucus colleagues, who consider the super committee’s deliberations one of the most toxic transparency issues facing Congress.
Rep. Mike Quigley, who co-founded the caucus with Issa in May, is spearheading a bipartisan bill that would, among other things, require deficit panel members to divulge meetings with lobbyists and expedite disclosure of campaign contributions.
“There’s no more timely issue, no bigger issue, no committee that’ll have more power of the next 50 years, hopefully,” the Illinois Democrat said in an interview.
The deficit committee held its last hearing Sept. 22, and since then, its members have had several closed-door meetings to the dismay of a handful of Congressional onlookers and advocacy groups. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a co-sponsor of the transparency bill, said he would like those meetings to be public and streamed live online.
“Not only is Congress at this point very, very unpopular with the people, I have a concern about democracy, about what people think of our institutions,” the Iowa Democrat said. “More people are getting angrier with the lack of sunshine in the process.”
Rep. Jim Renacci, the bill’s third cosponsor, said the trio will follow up with super committee members this week to solicit a response about their concerns.
“We’re going to continue to move forward to try to understand what’s going on and have transparency,” the Ohio Republican said.
But Issa categorically shot down the idea that he would join their cause, saying that “there are some times in which, candidly, you very much know you don’t want transparency.”
“One has to realize that you lose effectiveness if you ask for everything immediately, including some things that you will never get,” Issa said. “I want to make that [process] as transparent as possible, but I also know that you’re not going to have every meeting in a person’s office — everyone who comes in wanting to request that they get a Purple Heart they were denied — automatically published on the Web.”
If Issa thinks the transparency bill is going nowhere, he might be right. The calls have fallen on bipartisan deaf ears among leadership and at the super committee, whose co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, said the committee is sufficiently transparent as is.
“We adhere to the same rules as any other standing committee of the United States Congress, and we adhere to those transparency standards,” the Texas Republican said. “Two or more Members of any committee can meet and discuss. But all actions, all hearings, are going to take place in the public, and any proposal that we come out with will be vetted by the public.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who also sits on the deficit panel, agreed, saying it’s best for meetings to take place out of the public eye.
“In this polarized environment, it’s important for [there to be] some opportunity for Members to have an exchange of views,” the Maryland Democrat said. “If we get to the point where we’re marking something up, that will obviously be in public.”
Nonetheless, Issa’s staunch defense of this privacy has disappointed transparency advocates at the Sunlight Foundation, the group most involved with the dealings of the Transparency Caucus. The foundation has similarly recommended more deficit panel transparency.
“We miss Congressman Issa’s voice here,” said Gabriela Schneider, spokeswoman for the foundation. “He has repeatedly spoken out strongly about the need for transparency in the work of government. We urge him to review our recommendations.”
From his perch as chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa has repeatedly slammed the White House for being too secretive and has been a vocal advocate for transparency websites such as Data.gov and USASpending.gov.
He is the lead sponsor of a bill that would create an independent executive branch agency to track and report federal spending publicly.
But the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has no jurisdiction over the deficit panel, Issa said.