What's going on with the Super Committee?

It's easy to forget that a bi-partisan committee of both houses of Congress is meeting (in private) to figure out how to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget. If it doesn't by Nov. 23, the ax will fall and the across-the-board budget cuts of similar size will be automatically imposed.

So, what's the Super Committee doing? Hard to tell. All we've got is guesswork from leaking sources, like this story from the New York Times.

WASHINGTON — With just five weeks until its deadline, a secretive Congressional committee seeking ways to cut the federal deficit is far from a consensus, and party leaders may need to step in if they want to ensure agreement, say people involved in the panel’s work.

The 12-member committee is just over halfway through the 76-day interval from its first meeting to the date its final report is due on Nov. 23, but has not gained much traction. The lawmakers have not agreed on basic elements like a benchmark against which savings will be measured.

The panel’s members, evenly divided between the two parties, spent most of September in a standoff. Republicans refused to budge from their position against new taxes. Democrats said they would not discuss cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare unless Republicans made a firm commitment to accept additional revenues.

In a way, I understand the secrecy. If the committee truly is trying to do what's best be insulating itself from all the special interests gathering outside the moat, then perhaps it's a good thing. But if it's secretly being influenced by special interests, then obviously the process is corrupt.

Here's one view on the secrecy from the Sunlight Foundation:

Remember the Democrats' anger about the Patriot Act being voted on with no time to read it? Remember Republicans who said the healthcare bill was illegitimate because it was "rammed through?" These same figures are now holding the Super Committee process up as the adult way of creating policy. Many Members of Congress rallied on process grounds against bills they could read, amend, filibuster, bills that constituents wrote letters about, and got a full public hearing. They denounced their opponents, and screamed about illegitimacy over a processes that were far more accountable and open.

If the Super Committee doesn't change its conduct, the public (and the rest of Congress) are left with two options. We either get policy created in secret that fundamentally changes American law, or watch as the slow motion Super Committee train wreck fails to move our political discourse forward at all, because the terms of the debate are never aired publicly. Either way, the Super Committee fails and the public loses.

If I had to make a bet? Whether the committee meets in private or out in the public, most people won't be happy with its decisions. So, one might ask, what does it matter if they held the meetings on the Washington Mall or in the Capitol basement? I think what's needed is an intense education effort to get the public to understand that one way or the other, the cuts must be made.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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