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The Senate Should Let the Sun Shine on the NDAA

Would you like to know how your Senators determine how to best protect our national security and authorize the use of military force? How about how they decide to spend more than half a trillion of your dollars? Well, that’s too bad; you can’t. The Senate Armed Services Committee doesn’t seem to think it is important to open up the debate and markup, which is the process of approving amendments to a bill, of its annual defense spending bill—the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA—to the public.

Think about that. How outrageous is it that one committee can decide in secret how $585 billion in taxpayer money is spent?

The NDAA also shapes U.S. policy on some of our most controversial issues, including detention policy and closing Guantanamo, the Iran nuclear deal, NSA wiretapping, war authorization, and military sexual assault. Each of these issues has a profound impact on our national security and should be the subject of lively, public debate. (When you combine the incredible price tag with the public interest in understanding these issues, the argument that it is too burdensome to open these debates to the public is ludicrous.) The House Armed Services Committee has held its markup of this bill in the open for years—with no cumbersome side effects.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee cite classified information as a major reason they want to keep their markups closed. The few extra minutes it would take to pause debate to close the session to discuss classified information—a process that takes an average of 5 to 10 minutes in the House—is a hurdle most of these Senators don’t seem to think is worth surmounting.

Another common argument from Senate Armed Services members who vote to keep the markup closed every year is that opening the markup will stem the robust debate that occurs behind closed doors. However, this argument falls flat. Not only is the House able to conduct robust debate in open sessions, but the Senate’s open discussion about prosecution authority for military sexual assault crimes enriched the debate and persuaded at least one Senator to reconsider his position.

However, not all the Senators on the committee favor a secret NDAA. Last year, a bipartisan group of eight members of the committee voted against deciding the text of the NDAA in a closed session. Recognizing the public interest in conducting this business out in the open, this handful of Senators opened up their subcommittee markups last year, and all but two of the subcommittees have held an open markup in the past. These previously opened subcommittees (Airland, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Personnel, and Readiness and Management Support) cover some of the most security-sensitive issues that the Senate Armed Services Committee examines and show that it is possible to consider these issues without compromising classified information.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), the first Senator to open up an Armed Services subcommittee markup in 15 years, stated at a hearing in 2012: “The public deserves to be able to witness, understand, and scrutinize the positions being advocated and the decisions being made by their elected leaders regarding an over half a trillion dollar defense budget and the associated policies that impact our national defense.” At the same hearing, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who is now the new chair of the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, agreed. “Given what is at stake, I think that the American people deserve to know what is happening, deserve to know what decisions we are making,” Ayotte said.

There should be a presumption of openness in debating base closures, authorizing new major weapon programs, and in changing the pay and benefits we authorize for our troops. The refusal of the Senate to open up this process gives the impression that they don’t think their choices can withstand public scrutiny.

The notion that our elected officials refuse to hold debates where their constituents can conduct oversight of what they are doing is abhorrent to our system of democracy. The new Senate Armed Services Chairman, John McCain (R-AZ), has said that he leans in favor of opening the markup but is hesitant to do so without the approval of a majority of the members of the committee.

The Open NDAA Coalition, a group of more than 50 politically and ideologically diverse organizations, has been working for years to shine a light on how Senate Armed Services Committee makes decisions on the massive defense-spending bill. As we celebrate Sunshine Week, a week devoted to transparency and openness in the federal government, it is time to shine some of that light on the Senate Armed Services Committee.