Senate Committee—Breaking Rules and Not Giving Names

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) rules clearly state the requirements that must be met in order to hold a meeting or hearing in a closed session. The three prerequisites are (1) a motion to move to closed session, (2) a second on that motion, and (3) an immediate record vote held in open session.

Now let’s take a look at the vote that the SASC held on April 23 in order to determine whether to debate this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in a closed session. This vote was held in a closed executive session, clearly not satisfying the third requirement of the SASC’s own rules to have a closed session. You may remember that last year’s vote on whether to have an open or closed debate on the NDAA was also held behind closed doors. In fact, CQ Roll Call reported on the rule-breaking vote last year.

Let me first state the obvious: just because SASC broke its own rules before does not mean that those rules no longer apply. Additionally, I would like to contrast last year’s vote with this year’s vote: then-Chairman Carl Levin justified the closed-door vote by saying it satisfied the “record vote in open session” requirement because the roll call vote was released shortly thereafter. While we don’t agree with this explanation, even it cannot be used to justify this year’s vote. Despite the fact that the vote occurred on April 23, two weeks later we still do not have the recorded vote results. We do have a vote count, but that is insufficient to satisfy even the incredibly shaky justification of yesteryear.

When pressed about how this year’s vote violates their own committee rules, SASC staff dismissed it by saying that this rule doesn’t apply to regular meetings and hearings. Congressional procedure expert Mort Rosenberg, who spent over 35 years at the Congressional Research Service, disagrees. “That is not what this rule says.” Charles Tiefer, author of Congressional Practice and Procedure, summed it up nicely. “When Congress wrote the ‘open committee’ rule, it meant to take committees out of the business of closing off their proceedings from public scrutiny, so the Senate Armed Services Committee is basically cheating.”

Additionally, when SASC staff was asked about it last year, it doesn’t appear that anyone brought up the justification that this rule does not apply to regular meetings and hearings. As the rules haven’t changed, it appears that SASC is grasping for any reasonable justification to let this vote stand.

The debate on this behemoth authorization bill is set to begin on May 13, a week from today. In order to be in compliance with SASC rules, there still needs to be a recorded vote in open session on whether to conduct the markup in closed session. Therefore, POGO and our partners in the OpenNDAA Campaign are continuing to press Senators to vote to conduct this debate in the open. You can follow along on Twitter with the hashtags #OpenDefenseBudget and #OpenNDAA. The fight is not over yet for this year; we need to show the Senate that we care about seeing how they debate spending over half a trillion taxpayer dollars.