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.