GUY RAZ, host: At the Capitol today, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has been very quiet. The so-called supercommittee is supposed to identify at least $1.2 trillion in cuts over the coming decade. But so far, its members are keeping their ideas for how to do that under wraps. As NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports now, that doesn't mean the news is all that bad.
ANDREA SEABROOK: It was only a few weeks ago that the supercommittee was super news.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Aiming high, Boehner proposed that the new congressional supercommittee...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We have an exclusive look at a letter from a group of business leaders to the congressional supercommittee.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Congress created a supercommittee that is empowered to...
SEABROOK: Now, the sound of the supercommittee?
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SEABROOK: It's been weeks since the committee had an open hearing. In fact, it's only had three hearings total, the first of which was to set up its rules. In those rules, the panel is required to hold the same standard of transparency that every other congressional committee does, except for the classified ones. They're open to the public and the press, and often broadcast on the Web. So why haven't you heard from the supercommittee in weeks? Well, here's a clue. As the co-chairs were setting up the rules in that first meeting, Washington Democrat Patty Murray turned to Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling to clarify the definition of the word meeting.
Senator PATTY MURRAY: The use of the term meeting in these rules has the same traditional meaning and does not include less formal caucuses or working sessions.
Representative JEB HENSARLING: The distinguished co-chair is correct. That reflects our understanding as we have been working on this particular rules package.
SEABROOK: In plain English, the supercommittee may meet and work in private as much as it likes, as long as it doesn't vote or act in any official capacity. And it has been. For weeks now, the 12 members have been meeting behind closed doors, sometimes all together, sometimes in smaller groups, to try to hammer out a deal on future budget cuts. That means rank-and-file lawmakers of both chambers know very little about what's going on. For them, its name might as well be the super-secret-committee.
Representative JOE WILSON: We need to have an open process where the American people can have a voice.
SEABROOK: South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson. He worries the supercommittee will recommend further cuts to the military, and that Wilson won't have a chance to protest such cuts.
WILSON: ...till the last minute.
SEABROOK: On the other side of the aisle, Democrat Elijah Cummings is also concerned.
Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS: When you have 12 members of Congress acting on behalf of 535, it begs for openness.
SEABROOK: But Cummings also understands why the supercommittee is operating in deep silence.
CUMMINGS: It's because they feel that they can be more effective and efficient in what they're doing. I know that they're getting phenomenal pressure.
SEABROOK: Pressure from every lawmaker with a program they don't want cut, every industry protecting its interests, from local governments worried about their budgets. Congressman Trey Gowdy is a member of that huge class of freshmen Republicans in the House, and before that, he was a local prosecutor in South Carolina.
Representative TREY GOWDY: There's a reason that judges deliberate privately. There's a reason that some meetings are in camera. It is an unusual methodology, but I don't feel like there's this cloak of mystery.
SEABROOK: Gowdy and several other members say that by operating in secret, the supercommittee members don't have to constantly justify their positions to a gazillion outside interests. And if they did operate in public? It could be a disaster, says Missouri Republican Jo Ann Emerson.
Representative JO ANN EMERSON: Public meetings put members in the position of having to take particular positions that look good to the public but aren't necessarily productive in trying to come up with a solution.
SEABROOK: So really, the fact that nothing is coming out of the supercommittee could mean the members of it are staying true to its purpose: trying to make it work. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.
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