It's Not Just Health Care: Senate Seeing Creeping Secrecy, Rushed Hearings

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn speak to reporters at the White House following a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans on health care, in Washington, June 27. Republican leaders have been criticized for conducting most of their health care deliberations behind closed doors. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Senate Republicans have taken a beating over the secrecy surrounding the health care bill they finally unveiled last week, but it's not the only major agenda item they're trying to rush through this month with less than usual oversight.

Related: Senate health care bill: How the 'secret' draft process endangers Obamacare repeal plan

The Senate Armed Services Committee this week is amending and voting on its annual defense policy bill, a multibillion-dollar piece of legislation that sets military funding thresholds and guidelines for, among other things, America's role in the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Unlike in the recent past, the committee is considering the bill entirely behind closed doors, in a classified setting, alarming watchdog groups and prompting pushback from Democrats. The Senate committee does traditionally conduct much—but not all—of its debate on the defense policy bill out of the public eye, but it's not usually classified, says Elizabeth Hempowicz, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight. And Hempowicz warns that the additional layer of secrecy risks "taking away the people's ability to hold their representatives and senators accountable."

At the same time, in a different part of the Capitol, the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed forward with a hearing on two high-level Trump judicial nominees before they could be vetted by the American Bar Association, a breach of protocol that has the committee's senior Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, fuming. "The ABA has been rating judicial nominees based on their professional qualifications since Eisenhower was president," Feinstein pointed out Wednesday morning at the hearing to consider two U.S. district court judges for the District of Columbia. She protested that senators need to be able to look at these "independent, nonpartisan peer evaluations" before questioning nominees. The White House has already halted the practice of letting the ABA evaluate its judicial picks before they are formally announced, and Feinstein argued that makes it all the more important that the Senate allow the group the time to rate the nominees before they face a grilling on Capitol Hill.

To Sharon McGowan, a senior Justice Department official under President Obama who now works with the gay rights legal defense group Lambda Legal, Republicans' efforts to duck the ABA ratings is a sign they recognize "that these nominations, if actually given proper vetting, would not actually pass the smell test." Lambda Legal has launched a public campaign to draw more scrutiny to Trump's initial slate of judicial appointments, particularly several they and other groups say have troubling records on civil rights.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, defended the expedited hearing process Wednesday. "There are some times that this has been done in the past, not very many times," he conceded. But "it's far from unprecedented." Grassley blamed Democrats for delaying other judicial nominees that had received ABA ratings, prompting Republicans to move up the hearing for unvetted nominees.

Likewise, an aide on the Senate Armed Services Committee suggests the move to close off hearings on parts of the $600 billion-plus defense authorization bill and classify others isn't anything outside the norm. Such hearings have been classified in the past, the aide notes (although Hempowicz called it a "break from tradition"). The committee closed previously open hearings from public view this year in the interest of efficiency, the aide says. Thanks to delays caused by the White House's late budget and battles over a Senate health care bill, lawmakers faced a time crunch to debate, amend and vote on the bill (a multi-day process). The aide also emphasizes that once the committee completes its work on the legislation, it will post the full text of the bill (minus the classified portions) and a summary online. "Of the billions of dollars authorized, the vast, vast majority are unclassified," aide says.

To Hempowicz, that's all the more argument for declassifying and opening up the committee's deliberations on the bill, which will shape the future of the U.S. armed forces, military weapons programs and national security operations around the world. The House Armed Services Committee, she notes, is conducting its own public "markup"—as the process for amending and voting on legislation in committee is known—of its version of the defense bill this week. Why can't the Senate, she asks?

"We recognize that there are certain things that shouldn't be discussed in an open session," Hempowicz says. But classifying the entire markup and shutting out the public is "an abuse of the classification system." Her watchdog group has been pushing for public hearings on the Senate's defense authorization bill for several years, but Hempowicz says it's an especially pertinent conversation to have now, at a time when government secrecy and the handling of classified information have become such hot-button issues.

A number of Democrats agree—several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee voted Tuesday to make the panel's debate about the bill open to the public. "There were a number of us who voted to keep the session open," Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire told Newsweek . Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia was another. But as Kaine observed, "that's still a minority position on the committee."