Secrecy at the Deficit Commission

Note to the media: It’s past time for a little sunshine here

The President’s Deficit Commission held an end-of-the month meeting yesterday, and among the attendees was a woman representing the disability community. The woman, whose organization said she couldn’t let CJR use her name, had a heck of a time getting the green light to walk through the door. When she first asked to attend, a polite e-mail came back saying “unfortunately due to limited space” the meetings are “only open to the public via live webcast.” A Webcast wasn’t good enough, she thought, because you’re only a spectator without any input.

She tried again; this time, another e-mail explained “unfortunately all available space is already reserved.” On the third try, the e-mail reply told her all available space is reserved for the press. Not willing to take “no” for an answer, she simply walked into yesterday’s meeting, and nobody raised a fuss. What’s more, she said, there were empty seats. Was the Commission afraid of public input—reminiscent of Sen. Max Baucus kicking single-payer advocates out of his hearings last year?

When the session ended, commission co-chair Alan Simpson said that after the next meeting he and the other co-chair Erskine Bowles would stick around and listen to attendees’ ideas for solving the deficit problem. Maybe they got the message, the woman concluded.

Well, maybe, maybe not. There really hasn’t been much that’s been open about the Commission since the president created it by executive order early this year. Yet the Commission’s work, which will determine the shape of Social Security and Medicare, will affect every person in this country for decades. You’d think the public should know what’s going on. But right now it’s a good bet that most people have never heard of the Commission—let alone understand what it will be doing.

Perhaps Simpson and Bowles realized that their monthly meetings should be open, but the real work of the Commission’s three working groups (on mandatory spending, discretionary spending, and taxes) is happening behind closed doors. When Social Security Works, a Social Security advocacy organization funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, asked the Commission to live-stream those meetings, they said “no,” Alex Lawson, the group’s communications director, told me. A few weeks ago, one commission member, North Dakota senator Kent Conrad, defended the working group’s secrecy, saying he didn’t think opening the meetings was a “good idea because people need to have the opportunity to put out ideas, without them being…people need to have a chance to lay things out, put things out there, so that they can be considered.”

Outside groups and members of Congress are pressing the commission for more openness—but, in general, the media aren’t following their lead. Last week, Nieman Watchdog published a piece by Social Security Works co-chairs Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson urging the media to start asking the tough questions about the Commission’s work. Altman and Kingson argued that the president and Congressional leadership

have delegated enormous unaccountable authority to 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals. The 18 individuals are meeting regularly, in secret, behind closed doors until safely beyond this year’s mid-term elections. Their proposal will be voted on without the benefit of open hearings and deliberations in the pertinent committees and without the opportunity for open debate and amendment on the floors of the House and Senate.
Lots of bloggers, mostly liberal, picked up the Nieman story—but it got scant coverage in the MSM. Denise Baer, an adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, says that instead the media have pushed the notion that the country’s leaders agree that the deficit is a problem, and that Social Security must be dealt with. “This skewed elite consensus troubles me,” she said. “They are using PR techniques to reduce debate.”

I asked Baer if opening the full commission meeting once a month was enough. No, she said. Having a single meeting may give the impression of being open, but it’s not open in the sense of giving the public a chance to express their views. “Not letting the public weigh in is really anti-democratic at its most fundamental level. Citizens need time to understand the options, to understand the implications of choices,” she said.

If the media don’t help them do that, who will?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.