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Levin Resists Calls for Transparency in Defense Authorization Markup

Reporters want outgoing Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., to make his last defense authorization markup the most transparent yet.

The Standing Committee of Correspondents for the daily press galleries has requested that Levin, who will retire at the end of the year, consider opening all fiscal 2015 defense authorization markups to the media and the public, with exceptions for meetings that must be classified.

“When you leave Congress, you will have left behind a record of considerable legislative accomplishment, and you will be fondly remembered by reporters for your openness and candor,” veteran McClatchy Newspapers correspondent David Lightman, who serves as chairman of the committee, wrote in a Dec. 23 letter. “By opening the doors of the committee, you can complete that legacy.”

But Levin, an old hand on the Armed Services committee who has been part of every defense authorization bill since he came to Congress in 1979, confirmed Wednesday that he has no intention of charting a new course.

With extremely rare exceptions, such as a couple of hours of debate on sexual-assault provisions last year, the full committee has conducted its defense authorization markups behind closed doors. Levin said in a letter to the journalists that he stands behind those procedures.

Since the 1970s, “sunshine” rules have mandated that Senate panels open their markup proceedings. However, Senate committees can vote to work behind closed doors in certain cases, including during meetings that “will disclose matters necessary to be kept secret in the interests of national defense,” according to the chamber’s rules.

For decades, the Senate Armed Services Committee has used that exemption to keep its deliberations on the defense authorization bill secret, excluding the public, press and lobbyists.

The House Armed Services Committee, by contrast, works largely in the open to produce its bill. Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., has called the process the “gold standard” for congressional bipartisanship and transparency. Deliberations are closed only rarely, when members must discuss classified information. The standing committee suggests the Senate use the same strategy.

Levin rejected that idea, writing back that “time-consuming security procedures preclude us from going back and forth from open session to closed session” whenever a classified issue is raised. “Even in closed session, we have had occasion when an issue is inadvertently raised that exceeds the classification level for our mark-up,” he wrote.

He maintains that members do some of their most productive work away from the scrutiny of cameras and recording equipment. He also points out that the final products, including the bill, reports and recorded votes, all become public after deliberations are complete.

The standing committee argues that producing those materials later is not enough.

“The process of making the decisions should itself be visible to the American people in real time — as it is in most other corners of the Congress,” Lightman wrote.

He called a trend toward the opening of certain subcommittee markups a “step in the right direction.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., began pushing for transparency around the defense authorization process when she joined the Senate in 2007. She objected to secret deliberations each year and in 2011, while serving as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, she succeeded in conducting the markup in open session.

“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 the over half a trillion dollar defense budget,” McCaskill said in a 2012 statement. “We continue to gain votes every year, and I firmly believe that open mark-ups in the full Armed Services Committee are coming in the future.”

Since then, two other Senate Armed Services panels have opened their proceedings. In 2013, half of the subcommittee markups on the fiscal 2014 bill were conducted in open session.

Levin believes opening subcommittee proceedings does not raise the same kind of practical problem as opening the full committee markup, because classified matters can be deferred to the larger body.

Standing Committee of Correspondents Secretary John Donnelly, who writes about defense for CQ Roll Call, is one of the leading proponents of greater transparency in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senate Historian Don Ritchie, who has written two books on the history of the congressional press corps, provided some perspective on the gradual opening of markup proceedings that has occurred over the past 40 years. He noted that, along with reporters, open meetings attract lobbyists, making it “much harder to cut a deal or make a compromise.”

Ritchie said the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., waxed nostalgic about the markup process toward the end of his career, saying that he used to sit “side by side” with his colleagues and spend days poring over legislation. Open markups, in Kennedy’s opinion, functioned merely as a show for the press, with most of the real work conducted by committee staff.

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