Top House Democrats said Thursday that they want the new payroll tax conference committee to be open and transparent, in contrast to the bipartisan supercommittee that largely worked behind closed doors in its failed attempt to draft a debt-reduction plan.
“This should be a conference,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said at a news conference Thursday with more than two dozen members of the House Democratic caucus. “This should not be done in secret. We should not be talking about things that are under the table.”
Levin, one of the five House Democrats tapped by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to serve on the panel, noted that last month’s legislation extending the payroll tax holiday, unemployment insurance and other provisions expires at the end of February.
“I guess there’s one extra day this year in February,” he said to laughter from the assembled Democrats. “But I don’t think we should let the Republicans leave us till leap year.”
Pelosi, who had pushed for the debt supercommittee to conduct its business in public, said Thursday that “by its nature,” the payroll tax conference committee — an effort between the two houses of Congress -- should be an open conference.
“It’s a different story,” she said when asked how the payroll tax committee’s workings compare with those of the defunct debt supercommittee. “This is a completely different scenario. The supercommittee, I had hoped, would be more transparent and open, but they wanted to lay some foundations that they could do privately. And, you see, they did not succeed.”
She added: “I think that the public opportunity to see the negotiations leads to a better product.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the members themselves to decide how the panel conducts its business. Recent conference committees, such as the one last month on the national defense authorization bill, largely carried out their work in private. The debt supercommittee had started out on a promise of openness but quickly dissolved into a series of closed-door meetings and later in separate huddles of a handful of lawmakers.
Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the call for public meetings.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who served on the debt supercommittee and is tapped to serve on the payroll tax panel, noted Thursday that there is one key difference between the two: The payroll tax committee faces a narrow task, while the supercommittee was given broad jurisdiction in devising ways to rein in the nation’s debt.
“We have a very discrete task in front of us as a conference committee,” Becerra said. “We’re not out there to change the entire budget. We’re out there to achieve a particular goal.”
He added: “Anyone who wishes to meddle beyond that is risking the clock expiring by February 29.”