illustration: Alex Naubaum
In Defense of the Back-Room Deal
New York Times, October 18 2011
by: Jordan Tama
THE Congressional “super committee” charged with finding $1.5 trillion in debt savings through 2021 is under growing attack from both the left and the right for carrying out most of its work in secret. As Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, said recently, “We don’t get a better result for the people of this country when things are done behind closed doors.”
But greater openness by the panel, officially known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, would actually be harmful to the public interest. Private meetings are essential to give the committee’s six Republicans and six Democrats the freedom to step away from party orthodoxies, conduct serious negotiations and search for common ground, rather than engage in political posturing.
For the committee’s recommendations to be voted on in the full House and Senate, 7 of the 12 committee members must agree on them. If all of the meetings were held in public — as a number of lawmakers and open-government advocates propose — the prospects for such agreement would drop from slim to none.
History reveals the importance of extensive private talks for members of a bipartisan group to get to know one another and pursue compromises. Eleven of the 18 members of President Obama’s fiscal commission endorsed a $4 trillion deficit reduction package, but only after months of private deliberations. When the panel did hold public hearings, they resulted in partisan grandstanding about fiscal stimulus and health care reform.
Private deliberation can also help ensure legislative follow-up. In 1981, a crisis in Social Security financing prompted President Ronald Reagan to appoint a 15-member commission led by Alan Greenspan (then an economic consultant) and including seven members of Congress. The panel achieved a breakthrough at a three-day retreat in Alexandria, Va., during which commissioners agreed on the amount of revenue needed to keep Social Security solvent and began discussing proposals to meet the shortfall through benefit cuts and tax increases.
Later, a subgroup of five members negotiated the details with House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and the Reagan administration in numerous private meetings in lawmakers’ offices, at the home of the White House chief of staff, James A. Baker III, and at the presidential guesthouse. Congress enacted the resulting compromise in 1983.
Secrecy has also enabled commissions to succeed on national security issues. Few people thought the 9/11 Commission could reach a consensus because its membership included five Republicans and five Democrats. They disagreed on many issues, including the use of subpoenas to compel administration cooperation and the assignment of blame to both the Clinton and Bush administrations. But the group ultimately reached consensus on all of its findings and recommendations, including the establishment of the position of national intelligence director. Though the secrecy of many of its meetings provided grist to the mill of (unfounded) 9/11 conspiracy theories, it was necessary.
The commission’s leaders, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, established a bipartisan environment by speaking to the public in tandem and prohibiting commissioners from sitting next to fellow party members at meetings. Encouragingly, the leaders of the deficit super committee, Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Representative Jeb Hensarling, Republican of Texas, have a friendly and cooperative relationship.
Compared to independent commissions, however, the super committee has a disadvantage: all of its members are sitting members of Congress. For Democrats on the committee, political danger lurks if they back any cuts to entitlement programs, whereas for Republicans, support for any tax increases is even more perilous.
The attacks on the committee for meeting in private are probably motivated as much (or more) by fear of the committee’s succeeding as by a commitment to open government. Those calling for greater committee transparency are largely staunch conservatives, like Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, or staunch liberals, like Representative Jan Schakowsky, Democrat of Illinois, who have opposed a grand bargain that includes significant tax increases and entitlement cuts. They surely know that it will be harder to reach agreement if the panel cannot meet privately.
Critics say it is undemocratic for the super committee to exclude the public from its meetings. But on all issues, elected officials carry out much of their work behind closed doors; secrecy is not in itself undemocratic. Critics also argue that greater transparency would help the committee win broader support by bringing other lawmakers and the public into the process at an earlier stage. But transparency would actually make it far less likely that members would move past posturing to negotiations, and would enable critics to pick apart ideas under consideration before the members could make a strong case for them.
In an age when elected officials rarely deliberate across party lines, private discussions should be welcomed, rather than attacked. This is all the more true considering that the fundamental task before the committee is not to establish facts, but to find a political sweet spot. The committee’s success remains a long shot in our age of extreme ideological polarization, but its secrecy gives it a glimmer of hope.