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SASC Marks Up the Defense Budget in the Dark

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It could've been different this time. Instead, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) once again decided to deliberate the massive defense policy bill behind closed doors, defying requests for an open markup from dozens of public interest groups and thousands of concerned citizens who wrote and called their senators.

It's hard to think of a bill that merits more public scrutiny than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The amount of money at stake alone should be enough to make your wallet start sweating bullets. Last year, the NDAA authorized a staggering $682 billion -- nearly $5,000 per U.S. taxpayer. But the NDAA also merits close examination because of how much ground it covers. As one of the few must-pass bills in Washington, the NDAA has become a magnet for all kinds of proposals, attracting more pork than a Carolina barbecue cook-off on the Fourth of July.

Despite all this, SASC decided to keep its deliberations off-limits to the public. Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who could have made the decision to conduct the markup out in the open, again held a vote on whether or not to close hearings on the bill -- and made his preference to close known.

The final tally: 18-8 in favor of a closed markup. Three senators changed their positions this year. Commendably, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) voted to open the markup after previously voting to close. But Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) went maverick on himself, reversing his position from the previous four years and voting against a transparent markup, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who had also previously voted to open the markup, joined the dark side this year as well.

Taxpayers should be outraged by this result. Shutting the public out of discussion of defense policy and programs represents an affront to our democratic principles, and it only ensures that special interests continue to have near-exclusive access to lawmakers.

Now, the public has little insight into SASC's decisions about big-time budget issues, such as out-of-control spending on service contractors (who outnumber federal employees four to one and whose labor costs nearly twice as much as feds), billion-dollar boondoggles in the nuclear weapons complex like the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, and floundering weapons programs like the Navy's leak-prone close-to-shore combat ship and the trillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Not to mention, SASC still hasn't made the bill it passed available!

So what was the reason for keeping the deliberations secret? Those who voted against transparency argued that a closed markup protects against the potential disclosure of classified information.

This argument has no merit whatsoever. The Committee can and should close its hearings when discussing classified matters. But the large majority of the NDAA deals with non-classified information, such as providing healthcare for troops, hiring contractors, and buying weapons.

The bottom line is that there's no good reason why the default setting on the NDAA markup can't be "open." The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) has marked up the NDAA in the open for years. When it comes time for HASC to discuss classified information, the Committee simply votes to move into executive session. HASC also made the bill available to the public well before its markup. Why can't SASC operate like its counterpart in the House?

There's even a SASC subcommittee that conducts its markup of the bill in the open -- Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-Mo.) Military Readiness subcommittee.

Further underscoring the need for a transparent Senate defense markup is strong support of the public. This year, more than 40 organizations from across the ideological spectrum signed on to a campaign urging the SASC to open up its defense budget talks, and thousands of citizens lent their names to the effort.

The eight senators who voted to open the defense budget deliberations deserve credit for taking a stand for transparency, and Sen. McCaskill also deserves recognition once again for holding her subcommittee's markup of the NDAA in the open. They should be sincerely thanked. But the other members of the SASC should be ashamed of themselves. A bill that accounts for more than half of our discretionary spending should not be discussed behind closed doors.