Christian Science Monitor

On Aug. 2, with the nation on the brink of its first-ever default on the national debt, the option of punting the tough decisions to a “super committee” with a fixed deadline seemed like a good way out. But now, just eight days out, many lawmakers are signaling buyers’ remorse.

For some, it’s the fact that the committee has conducted its work almost entirely in secret, but for the occasional unconfirmed leak. For others, it’s the prospect of cuts to signature programs – or tax hikes – with no further say for Congress, other than an up-or-down vote.

By law, the joint deficit reduction committee must report to Congress by Nov. 23, and both the House and Senate must take the plan to a simple majority vote, without possibility of amendment or filibuster. If the panel fails to produce a plan or Congress fails to pass it or the president fails to sign it, $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts take effect in 2013.

“It was a bad idea from the start,” says Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey, a member of the Progressive Caucus. “Congress should never have relinquished its powers to a committee.”

“A lot of my constituents are saying: I sure hope they fail, because whatever they come up with is going to be awful,” he adds. “Now the interesting thing is that if they fail, what comes up is awful, too. The whole thing is as disastrous formulation that won’t work will if it succeeds and won’t work well if it fails.”

In a bid to gets its issues on the super committee agenda, the Progressive Caucus held its own ad hoc hearing on Wednesday to focus attention on the need to invest in job creation. “For this nation to succeed, the super committee must fail,” said witness Bob Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future.

“We ought to be having a fierce argument about how to create jobs,” he adds. “Instead, the super committee is pushing austerity. This is simply folly.”  

The 12-member deficit-reduction panel solicited recommendations from standing committees of the Congress, but there have been no subsequent public hearing vetting the claims of one committee’s priorities against another.

“They spent all this time working on farm programs, which is the tail of the dog,” says Rep. Jack Kingston (R) of Georgia. “The big money is in food stamps, school lunches, and WIC [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children]. Will the super committee deal with it? Hell, no.”

A coalition of public-interest groups has called on the super committee for a higher standard of transparency, as well as a moratorium on fundraising by members of the panel, because the stakes are so high. Instead, with the exception of four public informational hearings, most of the committee’s deliberations have been behind closed doors.

But there is some evidence that members took voluntary action to scale back fundraising activities. Five of the six senators on the super committee raised considerably less money in the third quarter of this year – that is, after they began serving on the panel – than in the second.  Four saw decreases of more than 60 percent, according to a report by the Sunlight Foundation.

Still, since the panel did not adopt any formal rules limiting fundraising, activists remain worried.

“From AARP to health care and defense, the lobbying of the super committee could end up being bigger than what we saw for health-care reform and banking reform,” says Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation. “At this point, due to the absolute lack of transparency, we don’t have a good sense of where it’s going.”

That sense of being out of the loop on critical tax and spending issues is also wearing on members of Congress. “We’re not meant to be an outsider looking in,” says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio. “I don’t like the super committee: It’s not transparent. It’s an insider’s game. It’s a subversion of the normal legislative process.”

In a new CNN poll, 78 percent of respondents say that it’s unlikely that the committee will develop a plan to significantly reduce the federal budget deficit by its Nov. 23 deadline. Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that negotiations are at a very difficult point. Last week, Republicans made an offer to increase taxes by some $300 billion. Democrats say that’s not enough, but have yet to make a counter offer.

“Failure can’t be an option,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, at a bipartisan rally he helped organize to encourage the super committee to “go big” and find a deficit-reduction package in the $4 trillion range. Some 150 members of Congress, including 45 senators and more than 100 House members, have backed a letter calling on the super committee to “go big” and keep all options on the table. That includes tax hikes opposed by GOP leaders and entitlement cuts opposed by Democrats.

“Whether we like it or not, this debt and deficit debate has become, in effect, a proxy for whether our democratic institutions are up to the job in the 21st century,” he added.