Democracy Demands High Level of Super Committee Transparency

During the past week, leaders of the House and Senate announced the members of the debt ceiling deal's Super Committee. Now, all eyes are turning to the committee's co-chairs, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), to see if they will institute basic transparency standards that many within and outside government are calling for. With so much decision making power concentrated in the hands of just 12 members of Congress, the country deserves the maximum possible level of transparency in the committee's operations.

The Super Committee

According to the 2010 census, the current population of the United States is just over 308 million people. The voting-age segment of this population selects 535 individuals to represent the people's interests in Congress. The average number of constituents represented by one of the 435 House representatives is approximately 647,000; a senator can represent anywhere from 563,626 people (WY) to more than 37 million people (CA). By contrast, each of the 12 members of the Super Committee will be representing their own constituents and up to 25 million other Americans.

The members of the Super Committee are:

  • House
    • Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI)
    • Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX)
    • Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI)
    • Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA)
    • Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC)
    • Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD)
  • Senate
    • Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT)
    • Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)
    • Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)
    • Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
    • Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)
    • Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)

A first glance at some demographic information related to the Super Committee members is available on The Fine Print.

The Potential for Special Interest Influence

Giving so few individuals the authority to make decisions that will affect every area of government activity makes them targets (or recipients) of special interest largesse.

A recent Associated Press (AP) examination of the committee members' campaign finance reports finds that the "six Democrats and six Republicans ... have received more than $3 million total during the past five years in donations from political committees with ties to defense contractors, health care providers and labor unions." In fact, each of the 12 members have "received more than $1 million overall in contributions from the health care industry and at least $700,000 from defense companies," according to the AP.

According to Bloomberg News, the defense industry will likely seek help from committee co-chair Murray. She is one of the few unabashed congressional advocates of defense contractors, especially Boeing Inc., which does significant business in the legislator's home state of Washington.

The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) notes that Hensarling, the Republican co-chair, has pulled in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the banking and insurance industries.

The potential conflicts between the Super Committee members' parochial interests and the nation's interests are a further reason for consternation. The Sunlight Foundation's Party Time blog recently noted that legislators and their supporters have already planned fundraisers that take advantage of the members' positions on the Super Committee: "At least five members of the congressional Super Committee tasked with reducing the nation’s deficit are scheduled to hold or host fundraisers just as the panel will be beginning its work" in early September. Though it is legal for committee members to pursue these fundraisers, the appearance of impropriety should give them pause.

Super Committee Transparency Is Essential

In light of the high stakes involved and the striking potential for a number of special interest-driven problems, the open government community is calling for super-disclosure and transparency by the Super Committee. A dedicated website should be created and the committee's activities should be posted on it in real time. Any documents, proposals, or testimony the committee receives should be posted immediately. All witness lists and hearing agendas should also be posted. The committee should develop ways to collect, aggregate, and display public commentary on the various proposals that come before the group. To prevent conflicts of interest, real or perceived, all committee members and staff should post their financial holdings online, along with information on all campaign contributions to members.

The challenge facing the Super Committee, coupled with the barrage of special interest lobbying that is sure to commence when Congress returns to Washington in September, demands an incredibly high level of transparency throughout the committee's deliberations. If the American people are to trust the decisions the committee reaches, the process must be open, it must be accessible, and it must offer opportunities for meaningful public participation and feedback. Anything less would be a great disservice to our nation.

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