The presumed incoming Senate Armed Services chairman said the next Congress should return to regular order in considering the annual defense policy legislation — maybe even opening the panel’s markup to the public.
John McCain of Arizona, who previously served as the panel’s ranking Republican, said Thursday that he will take the Armed Services gavel when his party assumes control of the Senate in January “unless there’s a mutiny.” McCain said he personally favors an open airing of the annual defense authorization bill, which sets Pentagon funding levels and policy for the fiscal year.
“I lean towards it, but I want to get the sense of all the members of the committee,” McCain said in an interview Thursday.
McCain has said in the past that there is no need to hold the markup in a closed session. Still, he said he wants support from a majority of the panel before he commits to throwing open the doors.
“I think it’s something where you’ve got to get a majority opinion of the committee, but would I like to open it?” he said. “Sure.”
The House Armed Services Committee has long marked up its defense policy bill in public — typically in a one-day session that stretches late into the evening hours — but the Senate panel continues to do its work behind closed doors. Under the current chairman, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the full committee has only opened its defense authorization markup to the public in 2013, when members held two hours of public discussion about military sexual assault provisions.
But the practice predates Levin, who will retire at the end of the year after eight years as chairman. Between 1997 and 2010, all Senate committee and subcommittee defense authorization markups were held in closed sessions. Since then, the panel has opened four of its six subcommittee markups to the public.
At the outset of a full committee markup, the Senate panel typically votes to enter closed session. This year, senators voted 18-8 to close the markup, with McCain voting with the majority.
McCain said at the time, though, that his vote was not an endorsement of the process, but cast in deference to Levin’s wishes.
Government watchdogs have criticized the practice, but Levin has defended it, contending it permits the committee to discuss both classified and unclassified information in a single session. Levin said in May, shortly after the full committee had finished work on its bill, that senators had brought up classified information twice during the markup.
Joe Newman, communications director for the government watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, called McCain’s comments “very encouraging” given his previous votes to support closing the markup.
“There’s a half-trillion dollars of taxpayers’ money that we’re deciding how it’s going to be spent, and the fact that the Senate is doing a lot of this behind closed doors [has] always bothered us from an oversight standpoint,” Newman said.
“We’ll see how that plays out,” he added.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the “devil’s in the details” and was more skeptical about whether McCain will actually deliver on open markups.
“Leaning towards opening a markup is not the same as opening a markup,” Sloan said. “Just because he says off the cuff he’s thinking about this, does not mean it’s going to happen.”
Sloan said the committee could hold a separate session dedicated solely to classified issues if that remained a concern for senators.
McCain joked that congressional reporters, who typically stake out the hallway outside of the committee room during markups for any sign of progress, would enjoy sitting in on the legislative session if they “need a nap.”
“I guarantee you, it is so boring,” he said.
Restoring Floor Debates
McCain also committed to returning to regular order by bringing a 2015 authorization to the floor for full debate.
“One thing I know of is that we are going to do what we did for all the years I’ve been here,” McCain said. He said a markup in May and full floor debate in June would be the benchmark.
“It’s usually a good two weeks of debate, amendments, and it educates the members because they focus on these issues,” McCain said.
The Senate has not passed a defense policy measure of its own for the past two fiscal years. Action on the 2015 Senate bill (S 2410) ground to a halt once the Armed Services Committee approved the legislation May 22. Despite efforts by Levin and current ranking Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma to clear amendments early so the bill could be debated in the autumn, the measure was never taken up. Leaders of the House and Senate panels are trying to negotiate a deal on a final bill that can clear Congress before the end of the year. A similar process unfolded last year, when the full Senate held votes on just two amendments to the fiscal 2014 authorization bill — both related to operations at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — before a vote to limit debate on the measure fell short off the 60 votes needed for cloture.
“This is disgraceful what we’re doing now,” McCain said. “We’re not allowing people amendments on affecting national security. That’s wrong.”
While McCain assigned much of the blame for shutting down the amendment process on outgoing Majority LeaderHarry Reid, D-Nev., he made it clear that he will not tolerate Republicans curtailing the defense authorization process either.
“I respect and support Mitch McConnell as our leader,” McCain said, “but if we didn’t take it up in regular order, there would be some difficulties in the United States Senate.”