Smoke signals from the super-secret committee

The deficit-reduction panel is bent on stopping leaks.

We may know the members' names, but for all intents and purposes, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction operates more like a college secret society than a congressional committee.

Members schedule meetings at the last minute without putting the agenda in writing; try to dodge bystanders (in this case, reporters) on their way in; and feign ignorance when asked what they've been up to. There's no secret handshake or tattoo -- that we know of -- but at this point it's not all that difficult to imagine them starting each meeting with a chant of some sort.

The super committee's Nov. 23 deadline is fast approaching, but few signs of actual progress have emerged -- just rampant rumors of discord and nebulous comments from panel members.

To wit, an exchange between committee member Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and National Journal this week:

Baucus: Everything's progress, by definition.

NJ: OK, but you guys always say you're making progress and that "everything is on the table." Surely some things have come off the table by now if you're actually making progress, right?

Baucus: I -- all truth is good to know, but not all truth is good to say.

Perhaps. But don't tell that to the frustrated lawmakers who aren't on the panel and want to know what, exactly, is going on.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has voiced fears that the lack of public access to the committee could allow it to be unduly swayed by lobbyists. And Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., went so far as to propose a bill eliminating the committee altogether.

"How can 12 people decide the fate of millions of Americans behind closed doors with little to no input from Congress or the average citizen?" Waters said when she unveiled the bill last week.

Members of the bipartisan Gang of Six emerged from a closed-door meeting with the committee on Wednesday morning tightlipped.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who became a kind of spokesman for the gang this summer -- always eager to discuss pressing deficit problems and possible solutions -- wouldn't comment other than to say the group discussed its plan with the committee.

The gang's plan, produced this summer, included broad tax reform that would lower individual marginal rates while bringing in some $1.5 trillion in additional revenue over 10 years, as well as reforms to Medicare and Social Security. In other words, Conrad admitted to speaking with the committee about the ideas that he'd already presented to nearly 50 senators and that budget-watchers in Washington have long speculated would form the meat of the committee's discussion.

"I think it would be inappropriate for me to say any more," Conrad said. "We've been asked to respect the deliberations of the committee. And I certainly do respect them."

It's not just that the committee's members are wary of their guests or the press. The panel imposed a one-aide-per-member limit (not including committee staff) on its closed-door discussions earlier this month, and the sight of aides filing out of the room to wait in the hallway for half an hour before going back in is not unusual.

One problem, according to a Hill staffer, is that members themselves are asking the CBO to score various proposals without including their staffers in the request - causing havoc as the CBO is forced to follow up on every question it has with a busy lawmaker rather than a legislative aide or policy wonk.

The crackdown on the number of people allowed in was spurred, aides said, by growing concern over leaks. In a kind of daily witch hunt, whenever an article about the committee is published, staffers call or e-mail around to try to figure out who leaked.

Leaks? Most stories about the super committee have been of the "almost certainly" variety, fueled with speculation about what could be going on.

But there's plenty of time to get a "no comment" from the members, given both the frequency of meetings and the fact that the media stakeout at the most common meeting place is right next to restrooms, allowing for several false alarms - lights up, cameras swiveling, reporters flipping on recorders -- during each hours-long gathering.

Some reporters have ventured inside the room after meetings to see if any paperwork has been left behind, only to find that the room in the basement of the Capitol Visitors Center has become a kind of situation room, wiped clean after each use. (It's unclear whether burn bags have been brought in.)

The group has only held two public policy hearings. Its third, on discretionary spending, comes next week. But if the charade of public hearings is actually supposed to demonstrate the committee's real work, the group may want to consider varying its witness list.

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf, the sole witness at the first hearing, will testify again at the third. The second hearing saw testimony from Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Thomas Barthold, who -- as several members pointed out when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., tried to get Barthold to answer a question in greater depth -- is in fact a government employee who can answer the committee members' questions at any time, regardless of hearings.

The unofficial deadline to submit a package, aides and Elmendorf have agreed, is at the end of the month, in order to give the CBO time to score it. But for now, the committee continues to resemble Skull and Bones more than the most important congressional committee in town. In fact, it's not unusual to see 12 members enter the room and nine leave. Who knows, maybe there's even a secret exit.

Nancy Cook and Billy House contributed.