Depends on What You Mean by ‘Meeting’: Super Committee Expected to Be Super Secret

Brian Darling /

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (also known as the “super committee”) met for the first time today.

This bipartisan, bicameral committee was created in the law increasing the debt limit and is tasked to find between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion in savings over the next 10 years. Membership on the committee includes Senators Jon Kyl (R–AZ), Pat Toomey (R–PA), Rob Portman (R–OH), John Kerry (D–MA), Patty Murray (D–WA), and Max Baucus (D–MT) and Representatives Dave Camp (R–MI), Fred Upton (R–MI), Jeb Hensarling (R–TX), James Clyburn (D–SC), Chris Van Hollen (D–MD), and Xavier Becerra (D–CA).

The hearing today was open and transparent, but don’t get used to it. The members of this committee have promised transparency, but, according to Roll Call, much work will be done in secret:

The most powerful Congressional committee ever constructed will hold its first public meeting Thursday amid promises of transparency, but much of the committee’s work is likely to remain out of sight as staffers and committee members hash out their ideas behind closed doors.

The super committee adopted rules that allow for secrecy in drafting up the final recommendations for Congress. The rules call for limited transparency.

Rule V, “Public Access and Transparency,” states in part:

2. Each hearing and meeting of the Joint Select Committee shall be open to the public and the media unless the Joint Select Committee, in open session and a quorum being present, determines by a majority vote that such hearing or meeting shall be held in closed doors. No vote on the recommendation, report or legislative language of the Joint Select Committee, or amendment thereto, may be taken in closed doors.

This looks great on paper, but Murray, co-chair of the committee, needed to publicly clarify her interpretation of the word meeting. Murray engaged in a colloquy with co-chair Hensarling in an effort to get members to publicly agree to some degree of super committee secrecy.

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.

This a problem, because the super committee is not a real committee; therefore, the use of the regular rules of order allows for secrecy in the drafting up of legislation.

Under the regular order of business, a bill is introduced by a Member of Congress in the House or Senate. That bill is referred to one or more committees, which conduct hearings on the specific legislation then entertain amendments to it. Once the debate and amendments are complete, a committee will vote to discharge the bill from committee. If enough members vote in favor of the final amended version, then it will be reported to the House or Senate floor for consideration.

Some committees use an informal amendment process and come up with a “chairman’s mark” before the legislation is voted upon. Even under those circumstances, there is a degree of transparency if legislation emerges from a committee.

The joint committee works very differently. Legislation will not originate with one Member and be referred to this unique committee. It will draft up the legislation after some pro-forma hearings, and this drafting will most likely be done in secret. The American people will not find out details of the plan until it is debated just before the November 23 deadline.