Admittance into the super committee’s already-secretive, closed-door meetings has just become even more exclusive, with the panel suddenly imposing a strict, one-staffer-per-member limit.
The tighter rein on attendees was to be imposed on Monday night as the 12 members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction headed into their latest huddle. The new rule appears geared to counter what are becoming full-blown efforts both by congressional Republicans and Democrats to leak.
“Not helpful,” is how an aide with knowledge of the panel’s activities described the impact of the leaks on the internal talks, including the bipartisan goodwill between the six Democratic and six GOP negotiators.
The committee is moving into a sensitive period as it scrambles to complete its mission of recommending at least $1.2 trillion in budgetary savings over 10 years by Nov. 23—amid fundamental disagreements over whether tax hikes should be part of the picture and calls by some for the panel to “go big,” finding even larger greater cuts and savings than mandated.
Next Friday is the deadline for House and Senate committees to submit any suggestions they might have for savings or raising revenue, based on their topical jurisdictions. And the Congressional Budget Office has said it needs the panel’s deficit-reduction plan in early November to have time to score its numbers—all of which means that the next weeks will be crucial.
Another aide tied to the committee stopped short of saying that the self-imposed clampdown on who can attend private super committee meetings is intended to plug leaks on the talks. But that aide did acknowledge an almost exponential growth in the number of congressional aides and others moving in and out of the four previous closed meetings held over the past two weeks as well as still others being copied on related e-mails.
Just keeping the list of attendees to one staffer per panel member means there are 24 people in the negotiating room. Allowing two staffers per member would increase that number to 36. And, if seats were also made available to super committee staff or aides to House and Senate leaders, the risk of political elbowing and partisan leaks increases even more.
But instead of a shift to more secrecy, some lawmakers who are not on the super committee, such as Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., say the panel should be taking just the opposite steps. Pressure from special interests and others have the opportunity to take even greater hold when the public does not have access to the negotiations, Heller and others suggest.
“As I have stated repeatedly, the committee must take special caution to protect itself from the pressure of special interests, starting by opening future proceedings to the public,” Heller said.
There have been reports in National Journal and other publications that the committee members are the focus of intense lobbying and pressure from hundreds of special-interest groups—ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., openly suggested to reporters once again on Monday that a “blueprint” may already be in place for the super committee “on how you get to that $1.2 trillion” from a previous bicameral deficit working group headed by Vice President Joe Biden in which Cantor participated.
“The discussion about tax reform and the rest may be something that is continuing in parallel,” Cantor offered.
But Democrats continued to argue that no such blueprint was ever agreed upon in the Biden talks—despite what Cantor continues to publicly proclaim. Rather, they say Cantor raised many of those items for discussion as part of the Biden group negotiations, but that they really never amounted to any more than a “wish list” before the Republican abandoned the talks.
This article appears in the October 4, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.