Senate Armed Services panel gets a bit more open

Slowly but surely, the Senate Armed Services Committee is putting its annual markup of the Defense authorization bill more into the open.

This year the panel will hold four of the six subcommittee markups in open session, up from three last year, according to the committee’s schedule released Thursday.

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Sen. Kay Hagan’s (D-N.C.) Emerging Threats subcommittee marked up in public this year, joining the Readiness, Airland and Personnel panels with open sessions for the Defense authorization markup.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) held public markups in those subcommittees last year, and they are doing so again this year.

In 2012, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) held the first open Defense authorization markup in the Senate Armed Services Committee in 15 years, when she was chairwoman of the Readiness subcommittee.

But the bulk of the Senate’s annual markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — which sets Pentagon policy and authorizes more than $500 billion in Defense spending — still remains behind closed doors.

The full committee markup under Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) will be closed once again this year. That forum tends to be where most of the contentious issues are hammered out.

Levin did open up the debate on military sexual assault during last year’s full committee markup, where the committee removed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) provisions taking sexual assault cases outside the chain of command out of the Senate’s bill.

The process is quite different on the House side of the Capitol, where the House Armed Services Committee marks up its entire bill in a marathon open session that typically doesn’t end until 2 a.m. the next morning.

Levin has been pressured by open government groups to make the markup public, but he has argued it should remain closed because the committee is debating classified and sensitive information as it marks up the bill.

Levin is retiring at the end of this year, but that doesn’t mean that the current closed system will change for the full committee.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Levin’s likely successor should Democrats retain control of the Senate, is keeping his Seapower subpanel’s markup behind closed doors this year.

If Republicans win the upper chamber, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would likely take over the Armed Services gavel.

McCain has voted against making the markup open, but he also told CQ in 2012 that he could support a public process.

“The chairman does have legitimate points. If we get into sensitive classified material, we would have to close the markup and open it again,” McCain said. “I understand that, but in my opinion that’s not sufficient not to open the markup.”

The Senate Armed Services panel will begin its NDAA subcommittee markups on Tuesday, May 20. It expects to finish the full committee bill on Thursday, May 22 or Friday, May 23.