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.”