Curtain to Open on Budget Conference — Then Close

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: Members of the bipartisan budget conference (L-R) Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) discuss their initial meeting at the U.S. Capitol October 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congress voted last night to fund the federal budget and increase the nation's debt limit, ending a 16-day government shutdown. 
National Journal
Billy House
Oct. 29, 2013, 6:06 p.m.

The cur­tain will rise Wed­nes­day on the long-awaited House and Sen­ate budget con­fer­ence, with 29 law­makers set to hold their in­aug­ur­al meet­ing — com­plete with open­ing state­ments — in full view of the cam­er­as.

But after this open­ing per­form­ance, ex­pect the cur­tain to be lowered again.

In fact, little in the way of ac­tu­al ne­go­ti­at­ing is ex­pec­ted to be car­ried out in the pub­lic spot­light. In­stead, the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee is ul­ti­mately ex­pec­ted to join the su­per com­mit­tee and a long list of com­mis­sions and oth­er groups that have tried to cut deals be­hind closed doors.

And that pro­spect is already up­set­ting some.

“A budget is a mor­al doc­u­ment, and it is im­port­ant that any ne­go­ti­ations hap­pen in the light of day,” said Alex Lawson, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the ad­vocacy group So­cial Se­cur­ity Works. “Mem­bers of Con­gress are sent to D.C. to rep­res­ent the will of the people, not to ne­go­ti­ate secret deals.”

Open or closed, the com­mit­tee faces a dif­fi­cult task, with a mid-Decem­ber dead­line and par­tis­an ten­sions peaked. Law­makers are tasked with find­ing com­prom­ise between two widely di­ver­gent spend­ing plans for fisc­al 2014 passed by the House and Sen­ate. Any re­con­cili­ation would have to be ap­proved by both cham­bers.

Already, ex­pect­a­tions are low among both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, and the pro­spect of a “grand bar­gain” on 10-year de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion goals has been largely dis­missed. Moreover, no budget con­fer­ence has reached an agree­ment in a di­vided Con­gress since 1986, when Mike Tyson was heavy­weight cham­pi­on and Mag­num P.I. was on tele­vi­sion.

Of­fi­cially, the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee has a re­spons­ib­il­ity to come up with re­com­mend­a­tions to the full House and Sen­ate by Dec. 13. The gov­ern­ment is be­ing fun­ded now un­der the tem­por­ary spend­ing bill ap­proved earli­er this month to end the shut­down. That ex­pires on Jan. 15, and some new fund­ing mech­an­ism will be needed.

As of Tues­day, no de­cisions had been made about the com­mit­tee’s pub­lic sched­ule bey­ond Wed­nes­day, ac­cord­ing to spokes­men for both House Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­man Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., and Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee Chair­wo­man Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash. Much of Wed­nes­day’s open­ing ses­sion, which starts at 10 a.m., is an­ti­cip­ated to be eaten up by pre­writ­ten state­ments from the con­fer­ees re­gard­ing what they hope or think can be ac­com­plished.

“Ob­vi­ously we’ll have a hear­ing, and people will lay out their po­s­i­tions, and then we’ll try look for areas of com­prom­ise “¦ and ob­vi­ously there will have to be con­ver­sa­tions tak­ing place,” said Rep. Chris Van Hol­len of Mary­land, a con­fer­ee and the top Demo­crat on the House Budget Com­mit­tee.

In­deed, some ar­gue that the con­fer­ence has a bet­ter chance work­ing out­side the pub­lic glare.

“It sounds a bit un­demo­crat­ic, but mov­ing ne­go­ti­ations be­hind closed doors prob­ably im­proves the chances that budget con­fer­ence ne­go­ti­at­ors will be able to reach an agree­ment,” said Sarah Bind­er, an ex­pert on Con­gress at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“On any tough policy is­sue, le­gis­lat­ive deal-mak­ing al­most re­quires secrecy. That’s the only way to get law­makers to com­mit to po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial ele­ments of a broad­er deal,” Bind­er said.

Rep. Frank Lu­cas, R-Okla., who will chair the sep­ar­ate House and Sen­ate con­fer­ence also start­ing Wed­nes­day on the farm-bill reau­thor­iz­a­tion, said those ne­go­ti­ations will fol­low a sim­il­ar format. There will be the first ses­sion in which con­fer­ees make open­ing state­ments, and then “we’ll get to work” in ses­sions that may not be so pub­lic.

“After the photo op and open­ing state­ments, it is a good thing in my mind that the private con­ver­sa­tions pro­ceed between the two chair­per­sons,” said Wil­li­am Hoag­land, a seni­or vice pres­id­ent at the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter, of the budget con­fer­ence. The former Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee staff dir­ect­or and GOP aide ad­ded, “It is in those private dis­cus­sions “¦ where the work will get done if there is to be an agree­ment.”

Steve Pruitt, a former House Budget Com­mit­tee Demo­crat­ic staff dir­ect­or who is now a man­aging part­ner at Watts Part­ners, offered, “It’s prob­ably best that they go be­hind closed doors, at least at the be­gin­ning, so they can see if they can de­vel­op the needed chem­istry to reach an agree­ment versus play­ing this ex­er­cise out in pub­lic — where they are duty-bound to stick to their re­spect­ive le­gis­lat­ive body and par­tis­an scripts.”

But le­gis­lat­ive bod­ies across the coun­try, from city coun­cils to county boards, man­age to pass budgets in full pub­lic view, and some say Con­gress should, too.

“We don’t want this to turn in­to a show tri­al, where every­body show­boats and plays to the cam­er­as,” said Steve El­lis, vice pres­id­ent of Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense. “But the work of this com­mit­tee does need to be pub­lic to a great ex­tent.”

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