Sunlight Foundation: Congressional supercommittee is an open government failure as well

The supercommittee isn’t looking super today. The New York Times reported this afternoon that Congressional lawmarkers concede that budget talks are close to failure.

Partisan Fail

"Partisan Fail" by David @Colarusso

Why? Politico’s chief White House correspondent, Mike Allen, dug into the issues in this morning’s Playbook. For those who had hopes that a grand bargain could be made by this group of 12 lawmakers, the reality of tomorrow’s expected announcement is going to be bitter medicine. Allen was an optimist but made a sharp point:

We thought that human factors would prod ambitious members to crack the code, and that the committee would take on its own ecology, regardless of pressures from above or below. But we were punk’d: The supercommittee – one of the most fascinating government experiments of this generation — never existed as a dynamic political organism.

Over at the Sunlight Foundation’s blog, John Wonderlich commented on an additional facet of this historical moment: the failure of the supercommittee on open government. Wonderlich argues that this failure calls into question four assumptions that drove the design of the supercommittee:

  • public discussion is a distraction, and public attention reduces substance
  • fewer voices at the table leads to clarity
  • contrived deadlines created a shared sense of purpose and urgency
  • it’s acceptable for party leaders to force Congress to choose between the supercommittee-creating debt limit “deal” and defaulting on the nation’s debts, with no time to examine the “deal”, and no ability to change

    Wonderlich pulls few punches in his analysis and leaves his readers with a suggestion about “what might have been”:

    What if they had started with other assumptions?

    If the leaders had all decided that deficit reduction needed a contrived process, what other possibilities could they have chosen? What if they had declared a deadline for a fall proposal from the Republicans, and vowed an up or down vote in both the House and Senate on their plan, on the condition that if Republicans fail, Democrats get their chance in the Spring? And that this process would continue until one side’s bill passed? If the agreement were built on the public word of the party leadership, then both parties would start vying for legitimacy, rather than positioning themselves for failure.

    That might be a ridiculous idea. But the point is that the supercommittee process was borne of a particular set of assumptions about how compromise should work, and was structured to reflect those assumptions. Those assumptions have been discredited.

    Secrecy plus power plus contrived deadlines equals embarrassing failure.

    May our leaders see the supercommittee as rock-bottom for their secrecy addiction, rather than finding a new way to double down. And the next time they create a power-sharing scheme, they should remember the difference between their discretion as party leaders, and the expectations for self-governance inherent in a democracy.

    Tomorrow, this particular experiment in representative democracy looks likely to come to end.

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