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Column: 'Faux' Transparency

Jun. 1, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
US Military Leaders Testify At Senate Hearing On S
The Senate Armed Services Committee has opened some of its subcommittee markups to the public, but critics claim it's not enough. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
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Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., gaveled a Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee markup into session at 5:04 p.m. on May 20. Twelve minutes later, the panel was done for the day.

At the onset, Hagan promised an “open session,” adding she was “confident that we can conduct our business in public.”

At the end of multiple Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) sub­committee mark­ups, aides were unable to provide reporters with summaries of the subpanel’s portions of the bill, which would authorize the Pentagon to spend billions in taxpayer dollars.

How about a copy of the chairs’ opening statements? “We don’t have that for you,” an aide said.

Hagan’s subcommittee authorized $7.7 billion in special operations forces spending alone.

And the markup of the Airland subcommittee — which has jurisdiction over the biggest US weapons program ever, the F-35 fighter, and other big-ticket aviation and ground combat initiatives — lasted 15 minutes.

There was nothing “open” nor “public” about how the Senate Armed Services Committee built its 2015 national defense authorization act (NDAA).

Two months ago, 55 groups wrote to SASC leadership with a message: This process must change.

Pushed by those groups, SASC has opened some of its subcommittee markups. But make no mistake, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) says SASC’s approach is best described as “faux” transparency.

“What’s absolutely faux is having a subcommittee markup that you call transparent but with no substance,” POGO’s Angela Canterbury said last week.

Canterbury said the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is “light years ahead of the Senate.” The House subcommittees hold public — though typically short — markups, often adopting few if any amendments. The full committee then marks up its bill in one marathon session.

Advocacy groups “have an opportunity to address aspects of the House bill before the markup,” Canterbury said. “That’s just not possible on the Senate side.”

The Senate panel’s buttoned-up process locks out taxpayers and gives wealthy donors too much power, she said.

On the House side, HASC touts how transparent its process is. Still, public subcommittee markups this year lasted an average of 12.5 minutes. One lasted less than 9. None featured a policy debate.

Once the full HASC got to work, many amendment fights were settled behind closed doors. And as in past years, controversial issues were left for late evening or early the next morning.

Is policymaking after the public has turned in for the night really transparent?

The panels work frantically to finish by May or June, but a final version comes many months later.

“Considering they don’t finish the bill until late in the year, your point is well taken,” Canterbury said when asked if the NDAA could be improved by building in a few more months.

Both panels could move their markups into the summer months, allowing for public review and comment.

The NDAA process in both chambers is unnecessarily buttoned-up, Canterbury says, despite “faux” claims of transparency by congressional committees.■

John T. Bennett is the senior congressional reporter for Defense News. Email: jbennett@defensenews.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/BennettJohnT

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