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Oct 11 2011

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How to Achieve Transparency for the Supercommittee

Every campaign contribution to members of this powerful panel should be reported every single day.

Ellen Miller By Ellen Miller

Come December, the priorities and role of our government could be drastically and fundamentally altered. Are your views and concerns being heard?

The supercommittee created in the wake of the debt ceiling clash is comprised of 12 members of Congress tasked with cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the national debt by the end of the year. Whatever combination of savings and new taxes this panel devises will be fast-tracked to the floor of both chambers, without amendments, for an immediate vote. This is an unprecedented amount of power densely concentrated in the hands of a few.

(Mike Theiler/Reuters)

The possibility of deep cuts across the federal budget sent a rallying cry to K Street, with one lobbyist forecasting a “Holy War” between the defense and health industries. It’s a battle amongst military contractors, health insurance companies, and other special interests buying lobbying time with the lawmakers and their senior staffers via campaign contributions. The special interests that have the supercommittee’s ears are very likely the same ones that contributed more than $28 million to the panel’s dozen members since 1989, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Most Americans, lacking this moneyed leverage, are left in the dark. We won’t get a chance to tell those lawmakers what to cut and what to keep.

We also can’t find out who does have that access. Current disclosure rules are a roadblock to letting us know.

You see, the supercommittee’s members report their campaign finance activities like all other lawmakers. They must report how much money they’ve taken from special interests on a quarterly basis, and they never have to report whom they’ve met with. But the panel’s work is proceeding so quickly that if they follow the old rules for reporting their fundraising, we won’t know which interests pushed their agenda until they’ve already succeeded.

The supercommittee’s unparalleled power demands that lackluster congressional transparency requirements be kicked into overdrive.

In today’s world of pay-to-play politics, expertly timed campaign contributions can open the right doors and provide access to a sympathetic ear. Campaign laws recognize the force of this cash, which is why contributions made within two weeks of an election are disclosed faster. Every member of Congress operates under these rules during an election year and knows that compliance is simple.

The supercommittee is in a similarly time-sensitive situation, where money can tip the balance of debate. While its members deliberate on crucial fiscal decisions, they should disclose campaign contributions in real time. Every contribution should be reported every single day.

Beyond the money are the meetings. Contacts between lobbyists and committee members or staff must all be disclosed online on a daily basis, including any written communications. The Obama administration already implemented these transparency requirements during the debate over the Recovery Act in 2009 and the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that passed last year. It’s not difficult and it’s been done before.

These decisions are too important to be left in the backrooms of Capitol Hill. Lawmakers should be required to post their meetings with lobbyists every single day. Ultimately, the nation’s lobbying laws should be changed to require lobbyists to do the same for the sake of our democracy.

Ellen Miller is the Sunlight Foundation’s co-founder and executive director. www.sunlightfoundation.com

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