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Project on Government Oversight

Senate Committee Shuts Public Out of the Debate Over Massive Defense Bill

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July 1, 2011

The Senate Armed Services Committee's (SASC's) markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) came to a close earlier this month. But although the American public can now see the end result of the deliberations, we'll never quite be sure how exactly the Committee arrived at the final bill.

That's because SASC Members voted by a count of 17 to 9 to keep meetings for the full committee markup of the bill closed to the public--but this was after all subcommittees except for one had already conducted their markups in secret. The Committee has traditionally closed its negotiations on the defense budget, holding that an open meeting might run the risk of disclosing classified information. As Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a Member on the Committee, has argued, the arguments against having open sessions are bogus.

For starters, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which considers its own version of the bill, holds its meetings on the NDAA in a session fully open to the public and press. In fact, the new leadership of HASC should be commended for furthering openness by making the defense budget bill immediately available for the first time. But moreover, if the House has seen fit to hold its meetings in public since the '80s, why can’t the Senate? As McCaskill points out, the Committee can easily move into private meetings for any discussion regarding classified material.

But at least one Senator has moved to open up the process. As Chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, Senator McCaskill held her markup of the NDAA in open session—something that has not happened in fifteen years. We applaud Senator McCaskill for her steps towards a more open and transparent process.

Those in favor of keeping the markup sessions private may argue that closing the sessions prevents defense contractors and their lobbyists from gaining access to Committee Members, and thus removes opportunities to lobby for special treatment in the NDAA. But this justification does not hold water—any time closed congressional deliberations occur, lobbyists actually benefit more. In most cases, these lobbyists already have close ties with congressional staffers and Members of Congress. Therefore, with closed committee markups, it’s only the public that gets left in the dark.

The senators who voted in favor of the closed meetings are: Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Jim Webb (D-VA), Mark Udall (D-CO), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Mark Begich (D-AK), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), James Inhofe (R-OK), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

The senators who voted against the closed meetings are: Senators McCaskill (D-MO), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), John McCain (R-AZ), Scott Brown (R-MA), Rob Portman (R-OH), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), John Cornyn (R-TX), and David Vitter (R-LA).

Those senators voting for openness should be thanked.

The process for formulating a bill as important as the NDAA should not be kept behind closed doors since decisions are made about how to spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. The Senate will most likely vote on the defense authorization bill in July. We expect that debate to be public–at least some of it will presumably take place on the Senate floor.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.