By JEREMY HERB
The change in leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee next year is likely to spark a renewed push from open-government advocates — and some newer members on the committee — to hold the panel’s defense authorization markup in the public eye.
Transparency advocates have long unsuccessfully pressed the Senate committee to make public its markup of the $500 billion-plus National Defense Authorization Act — which the House Armed Services Committee already does. But these supporters now see a window of opportunity with the retirement of Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who, like his predecessors, has defended privacy during the Senate panel’s work, citing the need to discuss classified material.
Whether the committee will break the decades-old precedent of conducting its markup in secret could depend on which party controls the Senate next year.
Those pushing for an open markup are hopeful that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), likely to take over the committee should Republicans win the Senate, will help deliver the votes to make it public.
McCain has not tipped his hand, as he voted in the past both to open the markup and to keep it closed. McCain told POLITICO that he supports making the markup public, but that he’d likely defer to committee members on how to handle the issue.
“I lean towards it,” McCain said. “I’m going to have to take the temperature of the whole committee before I would make a decision on that.”
If the Democrats retain the upper chamber, on the other hand, the markup is more likely to remain closed. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), in line to chair the committee, says he’s opposed to opening it because the committee frequently dives into classified material, which would require taking the session back and forth between open and closed status.
“When you bring the bill to the floor, that’s completely open,” Reed told POLITICO. “They do release all the amendment votes, so it’s not like they do all this stuff in secret. … It’s the ability to talk without feeling that you have to properly control your comment because of classified material.”
Though the committee votes every year on whether to close the markup, the chairman’s opinion has an outsized influence, as many senators have simply followed Levin’s lead to keep it closed.
“I’m a new guy. I’d be very willing to have it open,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who voted with Levin to close the markup. “Certainly there are times in that full committee at the end where we are tackling issues that we’re suddenly in a national security issue. … So I can understand why the chair has not done it, but I’ve seen it work open in my subcommittees.”
The new committee chairman — regardless of party — will surely hear from the Project on Government Oversight and other transparency groups pressing the panel to conduct its business in public. POGO started an “Open NDAA” campaign in 2012, launching a website and a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill. And the group said it is hopeful the landscape will look different next year.
“I fully expect that we’ll make another go at it,” said Ethan Rosenkranz, a national security analyst at POGO. “We’ll need to see exactly how the election shakes out and then chart the next steps.”
The push to open the Senate’s markup has less to do with party affiliation and more to do with seniority; the effort has gained steam in recent years among a newer crop of senators. Last year, the panel voted 18-8 to take the markup into closed session — all but one of the eight in opposition were elected after 2006.
The newer senators have also started opening their subcommittee markups. In 2011, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made her subcommittee markup public, a move that hadn’t happened in at least a decade. This year, four of the Senate panel’s subcommittees held markups in public session.
Senators who support open sessions say it’s important that the public knows what lawmakers are doing to combat suspicions of sleazy backroom dealings.
“I think the public should know as much about what’s happening, so that they can see what we do and what we talk about and what issues we’re voting on,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
Opponents, however, argue that the Armed Services Committee is different because of its frequent discussion of classified issues. Arnold Punaro, the Senate panel’s staff director for more than a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, said the Senate Armed Services Committee has greater jurisdiction over intelligence issues than the House panel does, requiring more classified debate.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member, said closing the markup discourages senators from making speeches for the cameras.
“If it’s opened up, they’re going to demagogue it, and they’re going to try to use that as a campaign tool, and you never get anything done,” he said.
Punaro, now chairman of an industry group, the National Defense Industrial Association, argued the closed setting allows for more candid discussion.
“You want to make sure that people can give unvarnished information, and it’s sometimes very difficult to get that when you’re on the public record,” Punaro said. For example, “you’re not going to want to say a program manager, on public record, is not competent, but maybe you might say it in a closed record.”
The Senate panel makes public all of its recorded votes, and Levin opted to open up last year’s debate on sexual assault measures.
The House Armed Services Committee, under Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), has expanded its transparency efforts, releasing the full text of its bill before the markup and, this year, making amendments available electronically as they’re debated.
“The advantage of being open is there’s so much suspicion over concerns about transparency in Congress, and you remove that entirely,” said Roger Zakheim, a former House Armed Services staffer who is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Given the gravity of the issues and the legislation, and the amount of money involved, I think it’s probably appropriate that you make that open to debate.”
A GOP aide said the House’s anti-earmark push is another factor; rank-and-file members would object to such a large bill on the floor marked up in secret.
“The Senate, however, really in effect marks up their bill on the floor,” the aide said. “The answer to transparency in the Senate is not necessarily opening the Senate markup in the committee, it’s returning to regular order on the floor.”