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Dec 12 2012

We Can't Fix the Budget in Secret

'The world's greatest deliberative body' now is like the Russian Duma, with secret meetings and preordained votes.

The United States is on an unsustainable spending and debt course. Without reform, it will lead to economic disaster. Yet a fundamental alteration in U.S. policy won't occur until the American people understand the depth of the danger and the scale of change required. One thing is already clear: Such change can begin only with extensive, messy and even contentious legislative work carried on for months in the open light of day.

This is the exact opposite of the hidden negotiations to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. Washington has become possessed by the idea that a small group of negotiators, meeting in secret, can solve the deep, painful and systemic problems plaguing this country with a single "grand bargain," produced at the 59th minute of the 11th hour. This is a siren song.

The Senate was once called the world's greatest deliberative body. But the democratic process—which leads to consensus, truce or compromise—has been set aside. So for three straight years the Senate has produced no budget, no plan, no long-term proposal of any kind.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., N.V.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC., earlier this month.

Instead, we have seen an endless series of secret conclaves: gangs of six, committees of 12, meetings at the White House, at Blair House, in the Capitol's labyrinth of hallways and hideaways. Meetings everywhere but in the committee room and the open air of the Senate floor.

No one denies that good people have been trying hard, but what have all these secret talks produced? Temporary fixes, stopgap measures and another set of emergency deadlines. One wise observer has said that the Senate now operates like the Russian Duma, where officials meet behind closed doors, put out the word, and the overwhelming votes materialize. Today in Washington—where we're faced with the consequences of our last secret deal, the Budget Control Act of 2011—the next round of secret meetings and hushed negotiations is under way.

Members of the Senate must reassert their chamber's historic role as the national institution where the great challenges of our time are debated, clarified and ultimately resolved in public view. Unfortunately, Majority Leader Harry Reid has executed a brilliant partisan strategy of protecting his members from public accountability by avoiding the public workings of the legislative process.

Following their victories in the historic midterm elections of 2010, Republican leaders too readily accommodated Sen. Reid's craven strategy. The country and their own party's political fortunes suffered as a result.

What we need is more distinction, not less. On these great issues of the economy and debt, the voters have sent Washington mixed signals and a divided Congress. It is thus all the more critical that the facts and choices be clarified. The Senate is the perfect institution—created for just such a time as this—to provide that clarity and consensus.

Proposals should be worked up in committee, where senators appointed by their colleagues have developed expertise in the issues that come before them. Amendments should be offered as part of an open process to modify and perfect legislation. The debate should be brought to the Senate floor.

It may take dozens of votes, even scores, to reach a consensus. But the American people need to be in on the process and have the opportunity to voice their opinion on concrete proposals. Have we forgotten that it is their future that is at stake?

At a minimum, any short-term fix that may be devised in order to avert the January cliff must spend at least one week on the Senate floor in order to give senators the time they need—and that the subject warrants—for amendment and debate. No Christmas Eve "deal" should be rushed through, using the threat of financial panic to secure its hurried passage.

Next year, the Senate should return to regular order, beginning with the production of its first budget plan in four years. Every senator, whose one vote is equal to that of every other, must stand up and call a halt to government by secret committee. Under Sen. Reid's leadership—without sufficient resistance from the GOP—the Senate has suppressed the needed debate and dodged the accountability that comes from casting and defending votes.

Nothing will do more to restore respect for the Senate than for the American people to see it engaged in full, honest and passionate debate. If some of our constituents are disappointed in the results or the votes cast by their senator, at least they can know that nothing was hidden from them, that everything was laid on the line for the future of this great Republic. They will know which senators gave their all to deal wisely and courageously with the great challenge of our time—and they can hold accountable those who did not.

Mr. Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, is the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee.