A broad coalition of governance groups and legislative branch experts wrote to the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday to criticize his recent decision to bar a livestream video of a confirmation vote on a controversial nominee, in contravention to the best practices recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic put out by the Senate Rules Committee.
“Senate and House committee proceedings should be broadcast online as live video except when they discuss secret matters, and this is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic where it is impossible for all interested members of the public and press to attend in person,” Daniel Schuman, policy director of the pro-transparency organization Demand Progress, which organized the letter, said in a statement.
“Congress must be open and accountable, and Sen. Risch’s decision to undermine the transparency of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee proceedings by refusing reasonable press and minority requests to relocate to a room where a video live-stream was possible is an error of judgment that no committee should repeat.”
Committee chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, upset Democrats last month when he, with only two days’ notice as opposed to the seven days’ notice required by Senate and committee rules, scheduled a confirmation vote on Michael Pack to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The agency oversees U.S. government-funded international broadcasters including Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
In scheduling the vote, Risch broke with the committee’s longstanding bipartisan tradition of cooperation between the chairman and ranking member in agreeing to agenda items. The panel’s top Democrat, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, and all other committee Democrats objected to the nomination on the grounds that Pack was being investigated by the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia for alleged improper activities related to the transfer of tax-exempt funds from a nonprofit film company he ran to a for-profit film company that he also ran.
Pack’s nomination was voted out of committee in a party-line vote in May and confirmed by the Senate last week, 53-38.
“All Senate committee proceedings should be live-streamed so the public and press can watch what happens as it happens. … Other rooms with live-stream capabilities could have been chosen. The lack of appropriate notice makes the matter worse,” reads the letter, which was signed by 18 government accountability and transparency organizations and experts. “Public and press access to official proceedings are essential to a democracy and the legitimacy of congressional proceedings. We urge you to comport the committee’s behavior with Senate precedent and best practices. “
Co-signers of the letter include the Campaign for Liberty, founded by former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the Government Accountability Project, the campaign finance reform group Issue One, the pro-transparency group Open The Government, the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Requests for comment to Risch’s office were not returned.
In late May, the nonpartisan Lugar Center, named after the late Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., a well-regarded former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave the panel’s oversight efforts under Risch an ‘F.’
In reaching its grades, the think tank’s Congressional Oversight Hearing Index used a formula that tabulated the number of policy, legislative and investigatory hearings held by committees each Congress and compared those numbers to historical norms.
In comparison, the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., received an A-minus, while the House Foreign Affairs Committee under Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y. also received an F.