Secret Senate meetings?

The Washington Post runs a late-breaking story today about plans for secret Senate meetings in the 110th Congress. The Post article characterizes the meetings as “secret” and says they will help speed up the Senate because members can find consensus behind closed doors that they may not be able to find on the Senate floor out in the open:

WASHINGTON — New Democratic and Republican leaders, trying to break Senate gridlock, are planning a secret “bipartisan caucus” to speed up business. The plans were disclosed Friday, even as a Congress still under Republican control was being accused by Democrats of being a “do-nothing” institution. It would establish a precedent expanding the kinds of “executive sessions” that up to now have been relatively rare, so that lawmakers can work better together.

It’s the brainchild of incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and has been endorsed by his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The rules governing any such meetings have not been finalized, according to Reid spokesman Jim Manley. He added in a subsequent interview that only one meeting was being planned and was expected to be closed to the public.

While I think the desire for bipartisan cooperation and a toning down of the rhetoric is commendable, I instinctively don’t trust these off-line meetings. The assumption supporting the need for the meetings, of course, is that members behave differently when the cameras are on than they would in private. And while that is certainly true, I don’t think it is a good idea to encourage that behavior by officially creating two different arenas in which members operate: the secret, and the public.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think everything members of Congress do needs to be public and to be out in the open. I acknowledge that these guys need their space to breath sometimes. They need to be able to have private conversations with colleagues with the assurance that not everything they say will show up in the NY Times the next morning. But that type of privacy is different than the type that seems to be suggested in this article.

The article goes on to quote Heritage Foundation colleague Brian Darling:

Others say that any meeting of 100 senators with rules of any kind is by definition a meeting of the Senate.

“It would be a de facto meeting of the Senate and although they want to call it something else, it is,” said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation.

“To set up something and to plan something between the leaders is very unusual and should be subject to open government rules,” Darling added. “Their intentions are good but the results of what they’re doing will be not good for the American people.”

Also worth considering is what kind of precedent this would set in the Senate. It is possible that secret meetings like this would become gatherings in which debates that both sides of aisle would rather not have in public are aired and in which consensus is reached. But why exactly that consensus was reached is left for outside observers to take wild guesses at. I am not sure we want a Senate that would take certain debates off-line while leaving other debates on-line.

Perhaps I am a little too worried about this. It is possible that these meetings are rare and turn out to be harmless, or even helpful to an institution that has seen its fair share of partisan food fights lately. But one has to admit, the idea of secret Senate sessions wherein the entire Senate is gathered behind closed doors conjures up the images of smoke-filled rooms filled with deal-makers and influence-peddlers that both sides of the aisle want to stay away from.

5 Responses to “Secret Senate meetings?”

  1. Steven Josselson Says:

    At the end of the day, Senators would still be held accountable by the voters based upon how they vote on bills. I suppose that is more important than the shady compromises and horsetrading that goes on in private to get them to vote as they do. I suspect that’s what this story is really about.

  2. Bill's Bites Says:

    Behind closed doors …

    Oh Boy ! BOHICA alert! Contributed by Zero Ponsdorf Don Surber comments about something I’d missed.AP reported tonight that Harry Reid’s first act as the Senate leader next year will be to hold a closed-door meeting of the Senate. Such

  3. BDizzle Says:

    Our government needs more open proceedings not more secret proceedings. If our Senators want to cut deals and debate tough issues, they need to have those debates out in the open. Secrecy leads to distrust and the potential for secrecy in deal making. The irony is that these Senators will meet in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol. This building is funded with taxpayers monies, yet the people paying for this meeting of all 100 Senators are banned from attending.

  4. Anon Says:

    This is nothing new. Committee’s and the Senate have secret meetings on a regular basis. Usually it is because of security clearance issues, but to my knowledge has never been limited to that. My memory could be wrong, but I think there was a secret meeting of the body in the Old Senate Chamber (which is where all these meetings are held) when then Majority Leader Frist was threatening the “nuclear option” There was a secret meeting a few weeks ago over an amendment to a bill.

    I think it could be good for the Senate. In some respects C-SPAN really changed the debate in the Senate and not for the good. If members and staff had to actually pay attention to what was going on instead of half way watching it on their tv and eating cheeto’s maybe they would understand the arguments both pro and con on the issues better. And maybe people would actually go down to the floor of the Senate and (dare I say) actually have a debate with one antoher instead of just giving a speech or even submitting a speech for the record and then sending out a press release.

    – Anon

  5. Anon Says:

    This is nothing new. Committee’s and the Senate have secret meetings on a regular basis. Usually it is because of security clearance issues, but to my knowledge has never been limited to that. My memory could be wrong, but I think there was a secret meeting of the body in the Old Senate Chamber (which is where all these meetings are held) when then Majority Leader Frist was threatening the “nuclear option” There was a secret meeting a few weeks ago over an amendment to a bill.

    I think it could be good for the Senate. In some respects C-SPAN really changed the debate in the Senate and not for the good. If members and staff had to actually pay attention to what was going on instead of half way watching it on their tv and eating cheeto’s maybe they would understand the arguments both pro and con on the issues better. And maybe people would actually go down to the floor of the Senate and (dare I say) actually have a debate with one antoher instead of just giving a speech or even submitting a speech for the record and then sending out a press release.

    – Anon

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