The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as...

The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the "supercommittee," holds its first organizational meeting (Sept. 8, 2011). Credit: AP

If we're adult about things, we'll acknowledge that Congress and congress have something in common. The making of compromises, like the making of babies, is best done in private. That's why I'm all in favor of secret deliberations by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

This is the fancy name for the "supercommittee" charged by Congress with finding at least $1.5 trillion in deficit cuts over the next decade. Having abdicated their responsibility to this panel because they couldn't agree on anything, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are now criticizing this very group for meeting behind closed doors, where there is a real danger that something might be accomplished.

There's a lot at stake; the panel's final recommendations on taxes and spending, when they come, can't be amended by Congress, which must vote yea or nay. If the proposals fail, automatic spending cuts kick in -- some regarded as anathema by liberals and others by conservatives.

It's a strange thing to argue for secrecy in a newspaper column. Newspapers, after all, are devoted (or should be) to uncovering government secrets, of which there are invariably too many.

But it's silly to think that openness has no limits. Like most things, openness carried too far will do more harm than good. Diplomacy has always been conducted in private. Labor negotiations are done that way as well, even when public officials sit down with civil service unions. The Supreme Court's deliberations are also sensibly carried out behind closed doors, where justices can speak frankly and change their minds without fear of looking foolish.

Compromise, like mushrooms, grows best in the dark. The founding fathers surely understood this when they agreed to secrecy for the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Some people, including James Madison, have argued that this led to more real debate than otherwise would have been possible.

The light of public exposure is often held to be purifying, but sometimes it shines so intensely that the result is only a desert. That's why being able to talk privately will be so liberating for the committee's 12 members -- and why I'm optimistic their effort will work. Without fear of public ridicule or outrage, they can consider a wider range of options. Posturing should be minimal, and members can focus on getting the job done, rather than saving face or appealing to the cameras.

While we don't know what the participants are saying in their secret talks, we do know who the participants are -- and that the supercommittee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. So the interests of both sides are represented.

Committee members aren't holed up on a desert island, of course. They will have conversations with the usual suspects, both good and bad. And it would be nice if the supercommittee members had to disclose campaign gifts immediately, although that wouldn't stop lobbyists from making promises for delivery on the day when the committee's job is done.

But none of these wrinkles negates the advantages of private talks. And we'll all be able to judge the supercommittee's handiwork when it emerges. Who knows? Under cover of darkness, it might come up with an even bigger deficit-reduction proposal. We can at least hope so.

The word congress has various meanings, but the key is coming together. Our Congress hasn't been able to do that, which is why it set up a poison pill for itself -- the dreaded automatic cuts -- and then gave the job of coming together to the committee. The trick now is to let this panel do its job in peace -- and in private.

Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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