McCain closes doors to public on NDAA sausage-making

This year the Senate Armed Services Committee is working on its marquee bill behind closed doors.

Secrecy isn’t unusual for the committee, headed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, but the degree of backroom work on the 2018 defense authorization bill has some interest groups worried.

This year the committee and all seven of its subcommittees will markup the bill in closed and classified sessions and only release the language of the legislation to the public once debate is finished.

That is concerning to the Project on Government Oversight, which sent a letter signed by 16 other groups urging the committee to hold open hearings on the defense authorization bill.

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“This year [the Senate Armed Services Committee] could consider amendments that impact or alter military pay and benefit policy, authorize base closures, provide funding for major weapon systems, impact whistleblower protections, and other provisions with significant and direct impacts on American national security. And yet, your Committee does not release the bill it will vote on in advance of markup and then closes the markup of the bill to the public. It’s time to bring the NDAA into the light of day,” the letter signed by Amnesty International USA, Federation of American Scientists and National Taxpayers Union and other organizations stated.

The Senate Armed Services Committee was contacted for this article, but did not respond in time for publication.

The committee deviated from previous years when it kept at least a few subcommittee markups public while still closing the full committee markup.

“In the previous year some of the subcommittees have been open. Last year it was three,” said Liz Hempowicz, POGO’s policy counsel. “When you think about the NDAA, it’s a huge bill. It not only covers over $600 billion of authorization for Pentagon spending, but it also has a variety of policy matters within the bill, some of which can really benefit from public debate.”

The House Armed Services Committee holds open hearings for all of its subcommittees and the full committee.

Some question the value of open subcommittee hearings. This year the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee markup lasted a pithy two minutes and 35 seconds. The Military Personnel Subcommittee markup lasted nearly nine minutes. Only the Strategic Forces Subcommittee lasted more than 20 minutes, clocking in at about one hour and one minute.

Many of the markups ended up simply being votes to report the subcommittee recommendations to the full committee.

But while the subcommittee markups tend to lack substance, the full committee markup is a marathon that tests legislative endurance. Committee markups have gone on for 15 hours or more in the past and in the process aired serious legislative debate.

Bill Greenwalt, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staffer, said the Senate keeps its markups closed for a reason.

“The issue is one of ease of conducting a meeting. It helps in not having to go from classified to unclassified. You can do that in hearings and have a closed hearing in the end, but when you are marking up and a member wants information you never know what they are going to talk about or what they are going to focus on and it could go classified at any time,” Greenwalt said.

Greenwalt added that a closed meeting in comparison to an open meeting is an entirely different dynamic.

“We might want to take a look at the fact that in a time when so little gets done in Congress, the NDAA process in the Senate has been so successful,” Greenwalt said.

The NDAA has been signed into law more than 50 years in a row.

Greenwalt said throughout the year the committee has open hearings on all the issues in the NDAA, but when it comes to the markup its “time for all the senators to roll up their sleeves and debate the issues and sometimes a closed meeting is extremely helpful in having those kinds of debates that can be unhinged and unencumbered by partisanship.”

He added that closed markups could be a successful model for spurring bipartisanship.

But Hempowicz says making the markups classified just to speed up debate cheapens the classification system as a whole, instead of forcing lawmakers to deal with tough issues publicly.

The government as a whole gets a bad rap for overclassifying information in general.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found overclassification has negative effects on national security and government accountability. It also found 50 to 90 percent of classified material is not properly labeled.

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