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Interest groups press Senate appropriators to allow livestream video

Contention may be a moot point for now as it’s not clear there will be any markups with the chamber this year

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., speaks to reporters during a break in a meeting on COVID-19 aid in the Capitol on July 21, 2020.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., speaks to reporters during a break in a meeting on COVID-19 aid in the Capitol on July 21, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Government oversight and taxpayer watchdog groups say it’s time for the Senate Appropriations Committee to follow its House counterparts and start letting cameras into its markup sessions.

A group of nearly 20 organizations led by Demand Progress, which advocates for government transparency, released a letter Wednesday urging the panel to livestream video of its proceedings. That would be a change from Senate appropriators’ traditional practice of only making audio available online for markups, though video webcasts are allowed for committee hearings.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Capitol building and hearing rooms are closed to the public and press access is limited,” they wrote. “An audio-only broadcast provides an inferior experience to attending in person, as it can be difficult to identify who is speaking, hard to follow the conversation and nearly impossible to perceive how remarks are being received by committee members.”

Alyssa Pettus, a spokeswoman for Senate Appropriations Republicans, said the panel doesn’t plan to change its tradition of keeping its markups audio-only for observers following along remotely. “The committee’s approach on that will remain consistent with longstanding practice,” she said.

Meanwhile, it’s not even clear Senate appropriators will hold any markups this year at all, which would make the outside groups’ contention a moot point at least for now.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Tuesday there’s a “slim” chance the panel marks up any of its dozen funding bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

“We’re not going to have a markup until we have some kind of agreement not to blow it up,” he said.

Shelby called off markups in June after Democrats insisted they would offer amendments related to COVID-19 aid and social justice issues, such as federal funding for police departments.

Ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has pointed out more than once that Republicans control the majority of seats on the panel and could simply vote down any proposals they don’t want included in the bills.

Republicans have argued the amendments violate the two-year spending caps agreement reached by the Trump administration and Congress last year.

While there’s no actual language in that law outlining which amendments can be offered and which cannot, the handshake agreement reached alongside the spending caps deal said neither party would include “poison pill amendments.”

When announcing the impasse, Shelby said the Democratic amendments would turn the process into “partisan sideshow” that could be used for political gain against GOP incumbents in November. Leahy contends that committee markup sessions are the appropriate place to debate how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars, particularly given the twin national crises of a pandemic and systemic racism.

Demand Progress’ letter was signed by groups spanning the political spectrum such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Project on Government Oversight and FreedomWorks, which advocates for limited government and spending cuts. They say video access is crucial to shine a light on how those taxpayer dollars are being spent.

“Public and press access to official proceedings is essential to a democracy and the legitimacy of the proceedings,” the letter states.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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