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Deficit 'super committee' draws full attention of lobbyists

Gail Russell ChaddockThe Christian Science Monitor

For the next three months, the focus in Washington shifts to the work of 12 lawmakers tasked by Congress with coming up with ways to reduce the US deficit by at least $1.2 trillion. Their recommendations are due by Thanksgiving.

With the sweep of their mandate potentially covering every dollar taxed or spent in the federal government, Washington’s lobby community is going on full alert to analyze every rumor, leak, and draft of potential cuts that begins to circulate.

But for now, speculation centers on the 12 individuals appointed by congressional leaders to do the work on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

All are veteran lawmakers, many with budget experience. Five are members of leadership in their respective caucuses; most of the others are close to leadership. None is a member of a tea party caucus.

Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas are the cochairs.

The other senators on the committee include two Democrats, Max Baucus of Montana and John Kerry of Massachusetts, and three Republicans, Rob Portman of Ohio, Jon Kyl of Arizona, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

House members include three Democrats – Xavier Becerra of California, James Clyburn of South Carolina and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland – and two Republicans, Dave Camp of Michigan and Fred Upton of Michigan.

Four were members of President Obama’s finance commission, known as Simpson Bowles, but none of the four voted for its final recommendations, which included a “grand bargain” of entitlement cuts and increased tax revenues. Nor were any of them members of the Senate’s Gang of Six, which also backed a “grand bargain.”

“Everything is on the table, so everything will be fought for from the lobbying side, and that’s already begun with the naming of the panel,” says John Ullyot, a public affairs consultant in Washington and former Senate staffer.

“Strategies are being put together to protect different priorities in the tax code. Anything could be hit anytime, and there’s a very short window for people to make a case,” he adds. “The real frantic efforts will be when drafts start to emerge around town of actual language.”

In the past, any time Congress has taken up major legislation affecting one interest group more than others – banking regulation, prescription drug legislation, health-care reform – there has been a spike in lobbying and campaign contributions to relevant members of Congress.

Anticipating this pattern, the Sunlight Foundation, a public-interest group that promotes transparency in government, began on Friday to post online word of any planned fundraisers related to “super committee” members. At least five members so far are scheduled to hold or host fundraisers just as the panel is set to begin its work, the Sunlight Foundation reported Friday.

It’s not unusual for members to attend fundraisers, especially in the run-up to a presidential election year. But activists say the power of this committee – and its tight deadline to report a deficit-cutting plan – makes it critical for the public to be able to track who is giving funds and, if possible, what interest groups hope to achieve with their contributions.

“These are the members that have this incredible power now trying to deal with $1.2 trillion cuts,” says Liz Bartolomeo, a spokeswoman for the Sunlight Foundation. “We’re going to be paying close attention to who attends them and what funds are raised after the fact.”

The first reporting of this period of fundraising will be in the quarterly report of the Federal Elections Commission at the end of September.

After Congressman Becerra was named to the panel on Thursday, a lobbyist for the mutual fund industry sent out an invitation to a fundraiser in his honor noting that the event “may be one of the first for any of the 12 members of the group.”

“This will be Mr. Becerra’s first event since being named to the commission and may be one of the first for any of the 12 members of the group,” wrote John Hart, political affairs officer for the Investment Company Institute, in an invitation first reported by Minnesota Public Radio News.

Becerra quickly denied any connection between the event and his new assignment.

“I did not know, did not ask, would not ask, and I will not ask any of my supporters to use my appointment to the select committee for purposes outside its principle focus,” he said in a statement.