Sunshine for the Super-Committee?

The legislation creating the “Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction” (AKA, the “Super-committee”) contains little detail on rules and procedures that the Super-committee is to follow.  Title IV of the Act establishes the Super-committee and provides for public notice of its hearings, but is otherwise silent on how much of its processes are to be open to the public.

However, as John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation pointed out to me, House Rule X(10)(b) provides that “[e]ach select or joint committee, other than a conference committee, shall comply with clause 2(a) of rule XI unless specifically exempted by law.” The legislation establishing the Super-committee does not exempt it from the requirements of either Rule X or Rule XI.

Does this mean that the Super-committee is bound to follow the requirements of House Rule XI(2)(a)? It is not clear how the House’s rules could impose a requirement on a joint committee established by law. On the other hand, it could be argued that the language of House Rule X(10)(b) is part of the background rules for formation of a joint committee, and the failure of the legislation to specifically exempt the Super-committee from those rules evinces an intent that they be followed.

An alternative argument might be that the House Members of the Super-committee are bound to seek compliance with the requirements of House rules regarding joint committees. Title IV(c)(2) of the legislation provides that “Members on the joint committee who serve in the House or Representatives shall be governed by the ethics rules and requirements of the House.” Although procedural requirements of committees are not normally what one thinks of as “ethics rules,” the Code of Official Conduct (Rule XXIII) does require that a Member “adhere to the spirit and the letter of the Rules of the House and to the rules of duly constituted committees thereof.” One might argue that this indirectly obligates the House Members on the Super-committee to treat the House Rules regarding joint committees as a form of instruction. Cf House Practice, ch. 13, §11 (instructions to House managers of conference committee).

If the House Rules regarding joint committees are either directly or indirectly applicable to the Super-committee, then several significant requirements come into play. First, under Rule 2(a)(1)(A), the Super-committee would be required to adopt written rules in a public meeting (“unless the committee, in open session and with a quorum present, determines by record vote that all or part of the meeting on that day shall be closed to the public”).

Even more significantly, the rules adopted by the Super-committee “may not be inconsistent with the Rules of the House” and must “incorporate all of the succeeding provisions of [Rule XI, clause 2] to the extent applicable.” Among the provisions of clause 2 that would appear applicable are subsection (e)(1), which requires that records of committee actions be maintained and made available to the public, and subsection (g), which requires that all meetings and hearings are presumptively open, and may be closed only when the committee determines by record vote that “disclosure of matters to be considered would endanger national security, would compromise sensitive law enforcement information, would tend to defame, degrade or incriminate any person, or otherwise would violate a law or rule of the House.”

Whether these provisions apply could have a major impact on how the Super-committee conducts its business.