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Lawmakers Seek Transparency From Supercommittee

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The newly formed congressional supercommittee's 12 members are charged with finding more than $1 trillion in budget savings this fall. Their clout could attract more campaign contributions, and lawmakers are demanding greater accountability for the money the panel's members take in.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) has a mixed voting record when it comes to campaign finance reform, but he is adamant about making the six Republicans and six Democrats on the deficit-reduction supercommittee more accountable.

"They have before them only everything in the federal budget and everything in the U.S. tax code," he says. "It's enormous power, it's an enormous role, and obviously everybody in Washington, D.C., and beyond, every special interest, is going to be lobbying them."

Those lobbyists will also possibly make generous contributions at the many fundraisers that members of the supercommittee have scheduled this fall. Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), a member of the supercommittee, says he "canceled a bunch of fundraisers" because the committee responsibilities have taken up so much time. As far as ethical problems regarding the fundraising, he says he's leaving that up to others.

"Every member needs to decide," Portman says.

Earlier this week, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) told the Boston Globe he'd decided not to do any fundraising while he serves on the supercommittee. However, possibly out of deference to colleagues who do plan to raise funds, Kerry downplayed his decision when asked about it.

"I think that too much is being made out of that. People are doing business here in the United States Senate all the time," he says, "and unfortunately, because of the nature of politics, they have to raise money too. So I'm not going to get into that discussion."

Other members of the supercommittee say they have no plans to alter their fundraising schedules.

"My view is, anything that was scheduled before I was appointed to the supercommittee, I'm going to continue with that schedule," says Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. "And I'm not going to add any new items in a fundraising capacity to my schedule."

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) points out that unlike senators, who face re-election every six years, he and other House members have campaigns to finance every two years. He says he would happily stop raising election money if he heard his opponents weren't raising money or if he didn't have to pay for campaign activities.

"Until then, I think it's important for me to do everything that I've done in the past and do it as transparently and as openly as I've always done it," Becerra says.

Campaign-finance watchdogs say holding fundraisers is not so much the issue.

Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation says the problem is that, because of reporting rules, nobody will know who gave supercommittee members money and how much until mid-January — two months after the panel completes its work. Allison says that helps special interests give money more discreetly.

"Even if you're not having a fundraiser, they can write you a check. It's not like you have to have an event for somebody to send you some money," he says. "I think it's disclosing the contributions that's really important, and that's what we have to see from these members while they're sitting on this committee."

Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-IA) teamed up with another House Democrat and a Republican last week to introduce the Deficit Committee Transparency Act. It calls for the supercommittee to create a website where any meetings with lobbyists would have to be posted within 48 hours. Loebsack says campaign contributions would also have to be reported.

"Whatever they receive, in terms of $500 or above to themselves or to their leadership political action committees, I want that reported within 48 hours," he says.

Loebsack says they "haven't heard from leadership on either side of the aisle yet" in response to the legislation. A letter sent the supercommittee's co-chairmen asking them to adopt the 48-hour rule has gone unanswered.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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