More secrecy

Bipartisanship and openness turn out to be mutually exclusive, according to both parties

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada is drawing fire for planning to hold a closed meeting of the Senate.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada is drawing fire for planning to hold a closed meeting of the Senate.

Photo By David Robert

During 2006 Democratic leaders in Congress made much of their commitment to govern more openly than Republicans.

On Jan. 16, 2006, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the incoming majority leader, and four other senators wrote to George Bush with recommendations on the Abramoff scandal. The letter read in part, “As the leader of your party, you have the opportunity to set an example and call for openness and accountability from your fellow Republicans.”

On June 26 at a Democratic Party hearing on Iraq, Reid praised “the spirit of openness and frankness these witnesses bring to the task.”

On the Friday after the election at a meeting with Bush, Reid said, “Election’s over. The only way to move forward is with bipartisanship and openness and to get some results.”

Two days later he said on CBS’s Face the Nation, “I think it’s very important we have openness,” referring to the day-to-day functions of Congress.

On Dec. 11, Reid and speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi issued a joint statement that said in part, “We will bring transparency and openness to the budget process and to the use of earmarks, and we will give the American people the leadership they deserve.”

But three days before Reid made that pledge, he and GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had said they were planning a closed “bipartisan caucus” in order to set a bipartisan tone and help create a congenial working relationship in the Senate.

“We won’t always agree but can sit down, side by side, and forge consensus on the issues important to the American people,” they said in a joint statement.

They claimed it would not be a meeting of the Senate, although all 100 senators are expected to attend if they are able, but other experts responded that it’s a meeting of the Senate, whether it is given that label by the two political party leaders or not.

A caucus is basically a private political meeting of people with common interests and is technically not part of Congress. One legal glossary describes it this way: “A group of legislators unified by common goals or characteristics. The largest congressional caucuses are the Republican and Democratic party caucuses. Other caucuses include the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and a variety of issue-oriented caucuses.”

Holding a meeting of the entire Senate and calling it a caucus (which is a non-governmental meeting) struck plenty of people as a contradiction in terms—and disingenuous. Editorial denunciations have come from all parts of the nation, blue and red states alike:

· “If such sessions are allowed to flourish, the official business of the Senate could become nothing more than a rubber-stamp, with decisions basically being made in private, outside the realm of public scrutiny.”

–Battle Creek [Mich.] Enquirer

· “The rationale is easy enough to grasp: Sen. Reid fears his brethren will bite their tongues and not truly come to a meeting of the minds if they know their words are for public consumption, available to be held against them later. Well, sorry, but that rationale could justify conducting almost any public business in the more forgiving environment of the sealed room.”

–Las Vegas Review Journal

· “The meeting, according to incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, is to get the newly elected officials off to a smooth start and allow members to get grudges off their chests. But aren’t their constituents entitled to know why the nation’s highest elected officials have been so vitriolic toward each other?

–Decatur [Ala.] Daily

· “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he wants to end legislative gridlock. And he wants to hold secret meetings to do it. It was congressional foot-dragging that derailed immigration reform, that hamstrung the federal budget and that left behind many unfinished pieces of business when Congress went home for the year. But Reid’s method for breaking the logjam leaves much to be desired. … Please, Sen. Reid, nip this bad idea in the bud. … The best solution to gridlock and foot dragging is to open the doors widely, not close them. Let the public see the Senate in action. People will quickly figure out who is being stubborn and holding up action on important issues. Having a senator explain to his angry constituents why he derailed a vital bill or wasted the body’s time with parliamentary games could be a wonderful deterrent to such behavior. Washington’s rancor is one of those ailments best cured by sunshine, not quarantine.” – Provo [Utah] Daily Herald

Charles Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, wrote to Reid blasting the closed meeting: “Your staff said that the planned joint caucus will not amount to a legislative session because no business will be conducted and that it will probably occur before the new Congress officially opens. Such legal finery is a great disappointment and a retreat from the pledges of transparency that helped your party gain power. A Congress tarnished by scandal after scandal, lower in public esteem than at any point in modern history, can ill afford to hide behind closed doors.”

Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told the Washington Post, “If they set a precedent, it becomes easier and easier. Then they say, ‘If you want us to get along and be efficient, we have to meet in secret'.”

Society of Professional Journalists president Christine Tatum sent a letter to Reid and McConnell: “If the Senate truly wishes to eradicate gridlock, there are plenty of other ways to start than by closing meetings. Why prohibit the public from seeing the business conducted in its name? … If anything, lawmakers need to become more transparent. A bipartisan effort to help the American people see more of what goes on, not less, might help weed out some of the Senate’s chief contributors to ‘gridlock'.” She asked the senators to reconsider “this deeply flawed plan.”

Reid’s political base seems willing to go along, if a survey with loaded questions and a self-selected sample at the liberal Daily Kos blog can be relied on. Of the Kos readers, 36 percent said they opposed the closed caucus, 37 percent said they supported it “so long as it is one time only,” and 27 percent said they support “Senator Reid’s decisions now and later here.”

Some critics such as the lobby group Common Cause have long argued that even the political party caucuses should be forced open to public view because they have become governing bodies where consensus is built on public policy issues.

Sen. Reid’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Pelosi has also been holding closed caucuses, though they are solely Democratic Party affairs, not meetings of the House.

Pelosi held the first of two closed caucuses for Democratic House members on Dec. 5 to hear from former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and retired Army Gen. John Batiste. The next day another session was scheduled for former treasury secretary Robert Rubin.