September 12, 2011 | Commentary on Budget and Spending
Twelve Members of Congress are tasked with the goal of finding at least $1.5 trillion in savings. Their work won’t be easy, but it should be done in the open for taxpayers to see.
In recent years, lawmakers have resorted to the troubling trend of crafting some of the most expensive and intrusive legislation behind closed doors.
The $825 billion stimulus was written in private before Congress held one committee hearing. And the health care overhaul — which President Barack Obama said would be debated on C-SPAN — was instead rammed through the Senate on Christmas Eve.
It doesn’t have to be this way. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lost her speakership after repeatedly breaking her pledge to run the “most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.”
She was replaced by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who championed transparency measures on his way to helping Republicans recapture the majority in the House.
So far, with a few exceptions, the results are promising. Legislation is posted for the public to review three days before a floor vote. Electronic format is now the standard for bill text. And committees operate in the open, more so than in House history.
It’s now up to the 12-member Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to live up to these new standards as well.
The rules adopted by the committee last week are an encouraging start, but as lawmakers demonstrate far too often, rules are frequently broken.
Even at the first hearing, Co-Chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) made a point of telling her colleagues, “The use of the term meeting in these rules is the same traditional meaning as used in both houses and does not include less formal caucuses or working sessions that would not be covered by either the House or Senate rules in the normal ordinary course.”
No one is suggesting Murray must broadcast every private discussion to the public.
But when members of the committee are present, drafting legislation and discussing the people’s business, they should do it in the open.
Open meetings are a hallmark of American democracy. From town councils to state legislatures to Congress, it’s essential for citizens to have access to their government and observe what’s happening.
Technology has made access even more readily available today than just a few years ago.
Citizens don’t have to be in Washington, D.C., to watch witnesses testify on Capitol Hill. They can watch Congress debate public policy issues from their family room or the coffee shop.
That hasn’t stopped some naysayers from arguing against greater access. In fact, critics complain it’s impossible to get anything productive accomplished out in the open because of Washington’s partisan polarity. On an issue as important as deficit reduction, they argue, there’s no time for grandstanding.
However, cutting out the public isn’t the solution. In fact, open meetings that are publicly accessible will foster the kind of debate and discourse that lawmakers need to hear to make an educated decision.
It’s encouraging that the committee opened its first meeting to the public and that one member, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), has collected several thousand ideas with a suggestion box on his website. But it shouldn’t end there.
There’s never been such a powerful committee in Congress. And because it operates outside the normal legislative process for the House and Senate, it’s even more important to function in a transparent fashion.
Open meetings are just one way. Transparency advocates at the Sunlight Foundation also recommend the 12 panel members disclose meetings with lobbyists, reveal campaign contributions and post their financial disclosures as well as those for committee staff.
The final report should be available online for at least 72 hours before the committee votes on it.
Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) have already urged their colleagues to take these steps. Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) have a bill requiring committee members to post campaign donations of more than $1,000 within 48 hours.
As the hard work begins, Americans should demand the 12 chosen lawmakers share their work in a public setting in a way that taxpayers can contribute. The other Members of Congress should be equally interested.
After all, they will be the ones faced with making a decision on the final package.
Rob Bluey is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Roll Call