Published in Politico.
Behind the recent crises averted, another lurks.
In the compromise to raise the debt ceiling, Congress struck a strange deal. It created a super committee — a bipartisan group of 12 lawmakers from both chambers —that must devise a major deficit reduction plan by Thanksgiving.
This committee’s choices will set our country’s course for years to come. It will affect various voters, issues and industries — for better and for worse.
Not surprisingly, special interests have already started to circle. There’s little doubt that when all the committee’s members are named in the next two weeks, the lobbyists will pounce. Interest groups across the political spectrum are likely to shower those members (the supers?) with political cash to curry favors.
Given the stakes, the super committee’s dealings must be as transparent as possible. All potentially corrupting outside influences — campaign contributors, ties to business corporations, relationships with political groups — must be made public.
To start, as many have urged, all campaign contributions to the supers should be disclosed in real time. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has proposed a sensible bill that would impose a 48-hour reporting deadline on donations of $1,000 or more. This should be passed without delay.
But disclosing direct campaign contributions is just the start: The supers should also disclose any involvement in soliciting funds for outside groups now busy building up war chests for the 2012 elections — including SuperPACS, 527s and 501(c)(4) or (c)(6) groups.
Given the outsized but stealth role these organizations play in today’s elections, they are an easy vehicle for shielding tit-for-tat arrangements. Indeed, without this transparency, special interests could funnel political dollars through a friendly third-party group, with no disclosure obligations, rather than making direct donations that would inevitably see the light of day.
Voters also have a right to know who is lobbying for special treatment. Thus, the supers should report every meeting they have during the deliberation period — including all meetings between their office staff and outside visitors. These reports should have the names of everyone involved, the organizations represented and the topic of discussion.
The best way to make this information accessible, as the Project on Government Oversight has proposed, would be through an official super committee website (the super site?). This site could also host information about the supers (including their full financial disclosures), the committee’s staff, the committee’s schedule and — as they start to form — the committee’s proposals.
To be sure, the supers will need the freedom to negotiate with each other behind closed doors — in today’s radically polarized political environment that may be the only way to achieve real compromise.
But requiring robust transparency for committee dealings is necessary to force accountability upon a body with unprecedented powers — and discourage deals that favor narrow interest groups over the broader public.
It could also provide an unexpected silver lining to an unpopular debt deal. Congress has not been able to update campaign finance laws since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which lifted restrictions on political spending by unions and corporations. As a result, millions of dollars were spent to influence the 2010 election without public disclosure — leaving voters largely in the dark. Once a reform that enjoyed near-unanimous support, disclosure has recently spurred bitter fights, resulting in stalemate.
With so much on the line, this deliberation process must be fair, thoughtful, principled and fully transparent. There should thus be widespread bipartisan support for Vitter’s proposal—as well as for disclosure of solicitation and lobbying contacts. But Congress shouldn’t stop there.
Bipartisan endorsement of transparency in the super committee context should be the first step toward requiring disclosure of all campaign spending. That would be truly super.