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Senate should open the Defense budget process

Would you like to know how your Senators determine how to best protect our national security and authorize the use of military force? How about how they decide to spend more than half a trillion of your dollars? In the past you haven’t been able to because the Senate Armed Services Committee kept this debate and markup of its annual spending bill–the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA–behind closed doors. But with Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) new leadership of the committee, the time has never been more ripe to open this process to the public.

The Open NDAA Coalition, a group of more than 50 politically and ideologically diverse organizations, has been working for years to shine a light on how Senate Armed Services Committee makes decisions on this massive defense-spending bill. Our organizations believe there should be a presumption of openness in debating the many issues considered in this bill, including war authorization, base closures, authorizing new major weapon programs, and in changing the pay and benefits we authorize for our troops. The refusal of the Senate to open up this process gives the impression that they don’t think their choices can withstand public scrutiny. Each of these issues has a profound impact on our national security and should be the subject of lively, public debate.

{mosads}The notion that our elected officials refuse to hold debates where their constituents can conduct oversight of what they are doing is abhorrent to our system of democracy. McCain, has said that he leans in favor of opening the markup but is hesitant to do so without the approval of a majority of the members of the committee.

The House Armed Services Committee has held its markup of this bill in the open for years—with no cumbersome side effects. Their markup process shows that fears about discussing classified information and stifling debate fall flat. The House has made accommodations for discussing sensitive information for years, and conducts robust debate in open sessions. In the instances when the Senate has opened up their subcommittees, as they did to discuss the prosecution of military sexual assault crimes, an open process enriched the debate and persuaded at least one senator to reconsider his position.  

Last year, a bipartisan group of eight members of the senate committee voted against deciding the text of the NDAA in a closed session. All but two of the subcommittees have held open markups in the past, considering some of the most security-sensitive issues that the Senate Armed Services Committee examines.  

This year’s bill will determine our national security policy for the next year. It’s ludicrous for the Senate to keep the debate and consideration of this legislation behind closed doors.

Brian is executive director of the Project On Government Oversight.

Tags John McCain

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