Pub­lic doesn’t have place at the ta­ble in debt talks

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SEAN LENGELL

House Speaker John A. Boehner has preached the need for Congress to have “an adult con­ver­sa­tion” with the pub­lic. Pres­i­dent Obama, when he was run­ning for the of­fice, promised to bring greater trans­parency to Wash­ing­ton.

But as con­gres­sional lead­ers and the White House strug­gle to ham­mer out a deal to in­crease the fed­eral gover nment’s bor­row­ing limit, a move the Trea­sury Depart­ment says is nec­es­sary to avoid an­other fi­nan­cial cri­sis, the talks that could pro­duce the year’s most cru­cial piece of leg­is­la­tion are be­ing con­ducted out­side the pub­lic view be­hind closed doors.

“Right now they’re ba­si­cally col­lud­ing with each other to hide from the pub­lic - Boehner, Obama, [Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry] Reid - they’re each say­ing that they don’t want to have this con­ver­sa­tion in pub­lic,” said John Won­der­lich, pol­icy di­rec­tor for the Sun­light Foun­da­tion, a non­par­ti­san non­profit group ded­i­cated to in­creas­ing gov­ern­ment trans­parency and accountability.

“What they’re de­liver ing here is ab­so­lute lack of mean­ing­ful dis­clo­sure and com­pletely se­cre­tive dis­cus­sions about enor­mously im­por­tant de­ci­sions that they’re mak­ing, and that’s just not an ac­cept­able state of af­fairs.”

Mr. Won­der­lich said it’s un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect all of the nego- tia­tions to be done in a pub­lic set­ting, how­ever de­sir­able. But he said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and party lead­ers in Congress have failed to live up to cam­paign prom­ises to bring greater trans­parency to Wash­ing­ton.

“All we know about [the debt limit talks] is what each side chooses to dis­close,” he said. “Lead­ers that like to talk about be­ing open and in­clud­ing the pub­lic should be able to do bet­ter than where we are now, be­cause it’s far­ci­cally se­cre­tive as it stands now.”

The lack of trans­parency in the debt limit ne­go­ti­a­tions also has irked some on Capi­tol Hill.

“Is it healthy to do these things in se­cret, drop them in on Aug. 1st and say it’s got to be passed by Aug. 2nd? I don’t think that’s good,” Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, Alabama Repub­li­can, said June 29 on CNN. “This is re­ally wrong and I ob­ject to it.”

Mr. Ses­sions said any mea­sure on in­creas­ing the debt ceil­ing should be sub­jected to the reg­u­lar leg­isla­tive process, which in­cludes com­mit­tee hear­ings, amend­ments and floor de­bates.

“The Amer­i­can peo­ple need to see this process,” he said.

Not all of Mr. Ses­sions’ col­leagues agree.

“You don’t need each de­tail [re­leased] . . . It is just an ex­cuse,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Demo­crat, told re­porters in late June. “Speaker Boehner ought to sit in a room and ne­go­ti­ate as he said, like adults, not walk away from the ta­ble [. . . ] and then we’ll get some­thing done.”

Mr. Schumer added that Mr. Obama al­ready has made pub­lic a blue­print for de­creas­ing the deficit

Yet some po­lit­i­cal ex­perts say that, some­times, the best way to ad­vance crit­i­cal and con­tro­ver­sial is­sues is to do so ini­tially out­side the pub­lic glare and in­ter­fer­ence from other lawmakers.

“I think it’s best to make the sausage be­hind closed doors, other­wise no­body would want to eat the meal,” said Dar­rell M. West, a po­lit­i­cal ex­pert with the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, a lib­er­al­lean­ing Wash­ing­ton think tank. “It’s not a pretty sight when politi­cians are hav­ing to make the tough de­ci­sions that they’re mak­ing right now.”

Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Biden and a bi­par­ti­san group of six mem­bers of Congress met 11 times be­hind closed doors in May and June to try to bro­ker a deal to raise the nation’s $14.3 tril­lion debt limit, the legal limit the fed­eral gov­ern­ment can bor­row to pay for its op­er­a­tions and debt obli­ga­tions.

The talks broke down in late June af­ter Repub­li­cans com­plained that Democrats in­sisted any deal in­clude tax in­creases on cor­po­ra­tions, a po­si­tion Repub­li­cans said they can’t ac­cept.

Repub­li­can lead­ers, mean­while, have de­manded that any com­pro­mise in­clude spend­ing cuts to equal the amount the debt ceil­ing is raised, at least $2 tril­lion.

Time is run­ning out on a get­ting a deal done, as Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Ti­mothy F. Gei­th­ner says the debt limit must be in­creased by Aug. 2 or the gov­ern­ment risks de­fault­ing on its loans, a sce­nario he says could trig­ger an­other fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Be­cause the two par­ties are so far apart, Mr. West said it’s prob­a­bly smart they hash out a ba­sic frame­work in pri­vate first be­fore de­bat­ing the de­tails later in a more pub­lic venue.

“They’re not writ­ing leg­is­la­tion [now], they’re de­bat­ing var­i­ous pol­icy prin­ci­ples,” he said. “I think there will be more trans­parency when we get to the leg­isla­tive phase and are ac­tu­ally draft­ing leg­is­la­tion and vot­ing on the bill.”

GOP ne­go­tia­tors also would find it dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss tax in­crease op­tions in a pub­lic venue with­out risk­ing a revolt from the dozens of Repub­li­can fresh­men in Congress aligned with the con­ser­va­tive tea party move­ment and its ‘no new taxes at any cost’ mantra.

“Where you’re re­ally ask­ing peo­ple to make some con­ces­sions that po­ten­tially could en­rage their own party bases and could put them in se­ri­ous jeop­ardy, but also you want to talk about ways you might want to soften the blow, cush­ion things, find a way to make it look a lit­tle bet­ter, you’ve got to do that in pri­vate,” said Norm Orn­stein, a con­gres­sional ex­pect with the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, a con­ser­va­tive-lean­ing Wash­ing­ton think tank.

“Those kinds of things, as you try to craft com­po­nents and put them to­gether, are al­most im­pos­si­ble to do in pub­lic.”


“Is it healthy to do these things in se­cret, drop them in on Aug. 1 and say it’s got to be passed by Aug. 2? I don’t think that’s good,” Sen. Jeff Ses­sions, Alabama Repub­li­can, said June 29 dur­ing a CNN in­ter view. “This is re­ally wrong and I ob­ject to it.”

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