Who You Gonna Call? Your Super Committee Member (on Oct. 31)
Members of the Congressional Super Committee—a bipartisan group of lawmakers charged with cutting a minimum of $1.2 trillion from the federal budget—have just one month before their deadline. Despite the many issues that divide them, Super Committee members have at least one thing in common—they have allowed special interest influence to haunt their committee, much like the spooky ghosts known to stir up mischief this time of year.
As fans of Ghostbusters know, ghouls cannot be eliminated, but they can be contained. In the 1980s blockbuster, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis restore order to New York City by capturing evasive spirits in a high-tech containment unit. When it comes to the groups trying to influence the Super Committee, we too need a little “ecto-containment.” Special interest money will influence the decisions that the Super Committee makes, but prompt disclosure will give the public the ability to contain its ill effects by holding lawmakers accountable.
In a nationwide push spearheaded by the Sunlight Foundation this Halloween, constituents of Super Committee members will knock on district office doors to ask for neither tricks nor treats, but transparency.
As many have argued, robust transparency is the best way to keep Super Committee members working for the American people. To this end, the Brennan Center has pushed for real-time disclosure of contributions to Super Committee members, their meetings with lobbyists, and any solicitations by committee members for third-party groups. Legislators from both sides of the aisle, including Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), and Reps. Dave Loebsack (D-IA), Mike Quigley (D-IL), and James Ranacci (R-OH), have sponsored bills that would require many of these policies. These efforts have not borne fruit. But the stakes keep rising.
The Project on Government Oversight estimates that the average Super Committee member, since being appointed, has raised an additional $2,270 per day in campaign contributions. (That’s more than many people earn per month.) One Super Committee member, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), reportedly raised twice as much in the third quarter of 2011 as he did in the second. The Sunlight Foundation reports that PACs for 19 of the biggest political donors—corporations like Lockheed Martin, the National Association of Realtors, Pfizer, and Chevron—donated a total of $83,000 to Super Committee members in the three weeks after their appointment.
On top of that, Politico reports that in the past six weeks, 200 companies and special interests have reported that they are lobbying Super Committee members. The Washington Post found that 100 former staffers for Super Committee members currently work as lobbyists. And according to the Huffington Post, half of the lawmakers on the Committee currently employ former lobbyists. The revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street, while nothing new, has a magnified potential to distort policy given the amount of power wielded by these twelve members.
Moreover, the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC has greatly expanded the role of supposedly independent political groups. Lawmakers, including Super Committee members, face more pressure than ever to fundraise for these groups and secure a larger piece of the third-party spending pie.
But between now and Thanksgiving, when the Super Committee must submit its proposals, information about these means of influence-peddling will remain cloaked in darkness. The Federal Election Commission will next report candidate contribution data on Jan. 31, 2012, long after the Super Committee reaches a final verdict. Even worse, the major independent spenders have all devised mechanisms to hide the identity of their donors, so we may never know who donated to these political powerhouses at Committee members’ requests. And, members have refused to create a public log of lobbyist meetings with their staff—this information too may never see the light of day.
But it is not too late for the Super Committee to voluntarily adopt these common sense rules. That’s why grassroots activists around the country are heeding the Sunlight Foundation’s call to celebrate Halloween by haunting the House and Senate—and you should too. On Oct. 31, visit the district offices of Super Committee members and call for greater transparency. With enough support, we can trap the ghosts of special interest influence in an “ecto-containment unit” of simple disclosure policies.
Jonathan Backer is a Research Associate at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. His work focuses on money in politics.