Imagine the reaction if President Obama and congressional Democrats had released a sweeping health care bill, drafted in closed-door meetings, and demanded its approval by Congress immediately. There would have been national outrage over the secrecy, lack of time for public hearings, and the absence of discussion, revisions, amendments, and multiple votes.
Yet that is exactly what the White House and Democrats are proposing once – and if – a deal on raising the debt limit by as much as $2 trillion is reached. The administration now insists on an agreement by July 22 in order for the government to avert a default on August 2.
The agreement, assuming there is one, will have been hammered out in secret meetings involving the White House and congressional Democrats and Republicans. At the moment, they are nowhere near a deal after weeks of negotiating sessions, all held privately and led by Vice President Joe Biden.
To remedy the rush to ratify a pact that neither the public nor most members of Congress may have seen for more than a day or two, two senior Republican senators asked the president on Friday to leave time for congressional hearings “to weigh the plan’s budgetary and fiscal impact.”
“A last-minute deal, delivered under the threat of panic, will not be acceptable,” the senators wrote in a letter to Obama. It was signed by Jeff Sessions, ranking member of the Budget Committee, and Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the Finance Committee.
“While we may disagree about how best to confront our deficits, or on how severe and immediate a threat they pose, we can surely agree that the American people deserve time to study the decisions their leaders are making on their behalf,” the Republican senators wrote.
Even as the debt limit talks continue, details of what is being proposed should be provided to Congress, they said. “Unfortunately, this information is being kept a secret as part of closed-door negotiations.” The senators asked Obama to provide, “in detail, the most recent version of the proposals that were discussed, including a list of any tax increases for which the White House reportedly advocated.”
Sessions also wants a 7-day period between the release of an agreement and a vote in Congress – enough time for analysis by the Congressional Budget Office and hearings. A period as short as three days isn’t sufficient to bring the public into the discussion, Sessions believes.
The secrecy of the process began with the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a 2012 budget, even after House Republicans approved one of their own. This meant the normal procedure of hearings, floor debate, and a bipartisan House-Senate conference could not take place.
The president issued a budget in February, but after it was widely criticized, it was rendered inoperative in a speech by Obama that attacked the Republican plan while offering only vague guidance on his alternative. This step by Obama short-circuited the normal process.
Instead of public consideration of a hike in the debt ceiling, plus the spending cuts that Republicans require to gain their support, the White House proposed the Biden-run talks – in secret. Those talks ended last week, with minimal progress, when Republicans walked out and said the president must get personally involved.
Obama has, but not much. He talked this week to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, but not to House speaker John Boehner. Boehner’s role, however, is more critical, since the biggest hurdle to raising the debt limit is gaining the House’s approval.
Except for Sessions, few members of Congress have questioned the secrecy of the negotiations. And the participants have said practically nothing about what has gone on.
Because of this, Obama’s statements in his press conference on Wednesday are unverifiable. For instance, he said, “both parties had identified more than $1 trillion worth of spending cuts already.”
What are the cuts specifically? Obama didn’t say. Might they be “spending in the tax code,” a favorite term of Obama? Republicans regard these as tax increases. Again, Obama didn’t say.
When he was running for president in 2008, Obama promised his administration would be utterly “transparent.” But the consideration of the debt limit bill has – because the White House has rejected the regular way borrowing and spending measures are handled – been quite the opposite.