Budget Negotiators Will Carry Out Most of Their Work in Private

The curtain rose Wednesday on the long-awaited House and Senate budget conference, with 29 lawmakers holding their inaugural meeting -- complete with opening statements -- in full view of the cameras.

But after this opening performance, expect the curtain to be lowered again.

In fact, little in the way of actual negotiating is expected to be carried out in the public spotlight. Instead, the conference committee is ultimately expected to join the super committee and a long list of commissions and other groups that have tried to cut deals behind closed doors.

And that prospect is already upsetting some.

“A budget is a moral document, and it is important that any negotiations happen in the light of day,” said Alex Lawson, executive director of the advocacy group Social Security Works. “Members of Congress are sent to D.C. to represent the will of the people, not to negotiate secret deals.”

Open or closed, the committee faces a difficult task, with a mid-December deadline and partisan tensions peaked. Lawmakers are tasked with finding compromise between two widely divergent spending plans for fiscal 2014 passed by the House and Senate. Any reconciliation would have to be approved by both chambers.

Already, expectations are low among both Republicans and Democrats, and the prospect of a “grand bargain” on 10-year deficit-reduction goals has been largely dismissed. Moreover, no budget conference has reached an agreement in a divided Congress since 1986, when Mike Tyson was heavyweight champion and Magnum P.I. was on television.

Officially, the conference committee has a responsibility to come up with recommendations to the full House and Senate by Dec. 13. The government is being funded now under the temporary spending bill approved earlier this month to end the shutdown. That expires on Jan. 15, and some new funding mechanism will be needed.

As of Tuesday, no decisions had been made about the committee’s public schedule beyond Wednesday, according to spokesmen for both House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. Much of Wednesday’s opening session, which starts at 10 a.m., is anticipated to be eaten up by prewritten statements from the conferees regarding what they hope or think can be accomplished.

“Obviously we’ll have a hearing, and people will lay out their positions, and then we’ll try look for areas of compromise … and obviously there will have to be conversations taking place,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a conferee and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Indeed, some argue that the conference has a better chance working outside the public glare.

“It sounds a bit undemocratic, but moving negotiations behind closed doors probably improves the chances that budget conference negotiators will be able to reach an agreement,” said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution.

“On any tough policy issue, legislative deal-making almost requires secrecy. That’s the only way to get lawmakers to commit to potentially controversial elements of a broader deal,” Binder said.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who will chair the separate House and Senate conference also starting Wednesday on the farm-bill reauthorization, said those negotiations will follow a similar format. There will be the first session in which conferees make opening statements, and then “we’ll get to work” in sessions that may not be so public.

“After the photo op and opening statements, it is a good thing in my mind that the private conversations proceed between the two chairpersons,” said William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, of the budget conference. The former Senate Budget Committee staff director and GOP aide added, “It is in those private discussions … where the work will get done if there is to be an agreement.”

Steve Pruitt, a former House Budget Committee Democratic staff director who is now a managing partner at Watts Partners, offered, “It’s probably best that they go behind closed doors, at least at the beginning, so they can see if they can develop the needed chemistry to reach an agreement versus playing this exercise out in public -- where they are duty-bound to stick to their respective legislative body and partisan scripts.”

But legislative bodies across the country, from city councils to county boards, manage to pass budgets in full public view, and some say Congress should, too.

“We don’t want this to turn into a show trial, where everybody showboats and plays to the cameras,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But the work of this committee does need to be public to a great extent.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.