Deficit Super Committee Keeps Congress in the Dark As Deadline Nears

With less than a month remaining until its deadline to engineer $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade, the Deficit Super Committee has worked exclusively over the past month behind closed doors – out of the public’s view to determine whether the panel is making substantial progress.

Today, the committee will hold its first open public hearing in more than a month, as the director of the Congressional Budget Office, Doug Elmendorf, testifies on “Discretionary Outlays: Security and Non-Security.” 

The lack of transparency has left many on Capitol Hill scratching their heads and wondering just what progress the committee has made since it last met publicly on Sept. 22. Without a steady flow of information coming from the private meetings, it’s also left some political observers skeptical that the 12-member panel will succeed in reaching its mandate.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, co-chair of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, denied that the committee is struggling to make progress and reasserted his confidence that the tight-lipped bipartisan group will succeed in identifying at least $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade by next month’s Nov. 23 deadline.

“I remain encouraged that the members of the Joint Select Committee know how serious the situation is,” Hensarling, R-Texas, said Tuesday. “I believe they are all committed to achieving the goal, and until the stroke of midnight on November 22 we still have plenty of time to do the committee’s work.”

Late Tuesday evening, the committee announced another public hearing, scheduled for Nov. 1. That open meeting will feature testimony from the top architects of two other key deficit reduction plans, Simpson/Bowles and Domenici/Rivlin. The quartet have encouraged the committee to reach for the maximum savings and the committee is thought to be closely examining elements within the plans during private talks. 

But over the past two months most of the committee’s work has been conducted behind closed doors, leaving Members of Congress and the press guessing just how productive the panel has been.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who is not on the committee, told reporters that he feels very strongly that “the most important thing we are doing over the next two months is trying to come up with a successful compromise and agreement between the parties with respect to reducing the deficit.”

“It will be one of the single best things we can do to give confidence to our own people, to give confidence to business and consumers, and to strengthen confidence around in the world in America’s ability to meet the challenges that confront it,” Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters at his pen and pad briefing Tuesday. “I hope the committee…focuses on this issue with a view towards a successful compromise that has everything on the table, discretionary spending, entitlements, defense, non defense, and tax preference items consistent with Bowles-Simpson, Domenici-Rivlin, and the Gang of Six.”

But judging by the mundane progress reports made by members participating in the private sessions and the controversy expected to come as a result of the recommendations, some are skeptical the committee will reach a deal in time for Congressional leaders to build support and pass it into law.

“The 12 are being very circumspect with their colleagues as well as the press…because a big deal is going to be a controversial deal, and there will be things in a big deal that all of its components, everybody will not like something,” Hoyer said. “Nothing’s agreed to until everything’s agreed to, and they are trying to see what can be put on the table realistically to move forward on.” 

Some congressional aides, however, suggest that the committee is able to get more work done in private deliberations than through the charade and formality of an open hearing.

Others contend that considering the limited time frame the committee is working under and rules requiring seven days notice prior to a public hearing, “it’s difficult logistically to schedule public hearings.”

“As for their progress, all I can say is members are still meeting,” an aide close to the negotiations said. “That in itself should be seen as a good sign compared to previous attempts.”

As outlined in the Budget Control Act, the committee has until Nov. 23 to pass a proposal with at least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction for the full Congress to consider. Congress then has until Dec. 23 to enact $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction. If they fail to meet the deadline, sequestration cuts totaling $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction would kick in, slashing defense spending and Medicare benefits.