Supercommittee Rules Not So Clear

The Supercommittee rules are out, but they leave some unanswered questions. To begin with, the rules provide that “[t]he rules of the Senate and the House of Representatives, to the extent that they are applicable to committees, including rule XXXVI of the Standing Rules of the Senate and clause 2 of rule XI of the Rules of the House of Representatives for the 112th Congress, and do not conflict with the applicable provisions of the Budget Control Act, shall govern the proceedings of the Joint Select Committee.” That’s great, but what happens if there are differences between the House and Senate rules?

For example, clause 2 of House Rule XI requires each committee meeting and hearing be opened to the public unless the committee determines by record vote, with a majority being present, that one of certain specified grounds for closure are present, including that disclosure of evidence or matters to considered “would endanger national security, would compromise sensitive law enforcement information, [or] would tend to defame, degrade or incriminate any person.”

The grounds for closing a Senate committee meeting or hearing under paragraph 5(b) of Senate Rule XXVI are similar, but not identical. Any of the grounds identified in the House Rules would probably also justify closing a Senate meeting or hearing, but the Senate identifies additional grounds, such as the need to protect certain confidential financial or commercial information, that would not justify closure under the House Rules. (Admittedly, these particular differences are not likely to be important, but one wonders whether the same could be said of all the differences between House and Senate rules).

More importantly, Supercommittee Rule V(2) states that “[e]ach hearing and meeting of the Joint Select Committee shall be open to the public and the media unless the Joint Select Committee, in open session and a quorum being present, determines by majority vote that such hearing or meeting shall be held in closed session.” This provision does not specify any grounds for closing a meeting or hearing. There was apparently some discussion at the Supercommittee meeting today that there could be closed-door discussions of “important issues,” although it is not clear whether this referred to formally closed meetings or merely to informal discussions among members.

To the extent that Rule V(2) might be interpreted to allow closing of hearings or meetings to facilitate delicate negotiations, this is a problem. Neither the House nor Senate rules permit closing of hearings or meetings for reasons of deliberative privacy. I would conclude, as does John Wonderlich, that Rule V(2) should not be read to permit closure for reasons forbidden by both the House and Senate rules (particularly since the Supercommittee Rules do not provide any rule of interpretation in the event of a conflict between its additional provisions and those of the House and Senate rules that it incorporates). However, it seems entirely possible that some members of the Supercommittee believe that they can close hearings and meetings for any reason, the House and Senate rules notwithstanding.


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